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AolNews 2010-02-04

Opinion: The Lesson of Toyota's Recall

Leonard Evans    Special to AOL News

(Feb. 4) – The bad news for Toyota continues to grow. On top of the recall of 4.5 million vehicles, the company Wednesday admitted to a design problem in its 2010 Prius brakes.

So what's a Toyota owner to do?

"Stop driving it" was the immediate advice (later retracted) Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood had to offer.

But the broader question we should be asking is, why is this such a big story?

Consider: According to various reports, 19 deaths have been associated with Toyota's gas pedal problem over the past decade. But over the same decade, a total of 21,110 people have been killed in Toyota vehicles, with an additional 1,261 killed in Lexus cars (based on analyzing 1999-2008 fatality data from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). Almost none of these deaths had anything to do with technology, faulty or otherwise. Almost all of them were the result of driver behavior.

Even the claim that the 19 deaths were "linked" to the defect in no way implies that it was the main factor.

Seventy years of scientific research has shown that what drivers do behind the wheel is the dominant factor in traffic deaths. Speed, for example, is a critical factor in safety. An almost imperceptible reduction in speed from 52 mph to 50 mph cuts the risk of being killed by 15 percent. That's more than the risk reduction from airbags.

So if the prospect of a sticky gas pedal alarms you, just slow down a little. The result will be that you are safer with the defect than you were without it.

Even in a car with faulty gas pedals, driving with a prudent safety margin should provide enough time to handle the effect of the gas pedal sticking. But if you are driving at the edge, then any departure from what you expect can lead to disaster.

If you do not own a Toyota, the recall should be of little personal interest to you. The chances that your vehicle will be hit by a Toyota speeding out of control because of a stuck gas pedal is about the same as being hit by lightning.

On the other hand, how many drivers do you see threatening your life by talking on cell phones instead of looking where they are going?

Driver distraction and other unsafe driving practices are what the transportation secretary should be addressing.

In a typical day, 100 people are killed on our roads – more than 419,000 have died in traffic crashes over the past decade.

We know how to cut this death toll in half. Indeed, many countries, including Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, have already cut their highway death tolls by far more than half.

These countries didn't achieve this success by focusing on safety inspections and recalls. They did it by focusing their efforts on rules, regulations and, most importantly, public information that meaningfully changed driver behavior in line with scientific evidence. Our overemphasis on vehicle defects amounts to public disinformation.

Of course, the sticky gas pedal story is important. Of course, the vehicles ought to be fixed. And, of course, Toyota ought to have egg on its face.

But if we spend all our time focusing on relatively unimportant safety factors like sticky gas pedals, we won't have the energy left to focus on the No. 1 factor.

Traffic safety is overwhelmingly about drivers, not vehicles.
Leonard Evans is an internationally recognized traffic safety expert who spent 33 years with General Motors Research Laboratories and is the author of "Traffic Safety."

Evans' previous op-ed for AOL News was "Auto Technology That Kills."

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