Bugaboos Plague Toyota's Recalls
LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:
Driving a Toyota may seem like a pretty risky idea these days. For weeks now, we've been hearing scary stories about sudden acceleration, failing brakes and car recalls. But as NPR's Jon Hamilton reports, assessing the risk of driving a Toyota may have more to do with emotion than statistics.
JON HAMILTON: When you talk about the Toyota situation with experts on traffic safety, the first thing they say is that sticky accelerators and faulty brakes need to be fixed. The second thing they tend to say is that even massive recalls like Toyotas don't do much to make drivers and passengers safer. Leonard Evans is a physicist, a former employee of GM and author of the book "Traffic Safety."
LEONARD EVANS: The whole history of U.S. traffic safety has been one focusing on the vehicle, one of the least important factors that affects traffic safety.
HAMILTON: Evans says his review of the data show that in the decade ending in 2008, about 22,000 people were killed in vehicles made by Toyota or Lexus.
EVANS: All these people were killed because of factors that had absolutely nothing to do with any vehicle defect.
HAMILTON: Evans says during that same period, it's possible, though not yet certain, that accelerator problems in Toyotas played a role in another 19 deaths, or about two each year. Evans says people should take comfort in the fact that even if an accelerator does stick, drivers should usually be able to prevent a crash.
EVANS: The weakest brakes are stronger than the strongest engine. And the normal instinctive reaction when you're in trouble ought to be to apply the brakes.
HAMILTON: Evans says given all we know about the potential risks from Toyotas, we're far more frightened than we need to be. David Ropeik, a risk communication consultant in Massachusetts says that's because our brains don't use logic when it comes to fear.
DAVID ROPEIK: We don't calculate risk based on our probabilistic chances of something bad happening. We gauge risk based on do we trust the people who have made the products we're taking; the pharmaceuticals, the cars, the neighboring nuclear power plant.
HAMILTON: And Ropeik says often we don't, especially if we think they may have withheld information about the safety of a product. He says people also tend to think something is especially dangerous if it's being imposed on them.
ROPEIK: Imposed risk always feels much worse than the same risk if you chose to do it yourself. Like if you get into one of these Toyotas and they work fine, but you drive 90 miles an hour after taking three drinks. That won't feel as scary, even though it's much riskier, because you're choosing to do it yourself.
HAMILTON: You might think people would feel safe if they are driving a car that's not one of the recalled Toyotas. But Ropeik says that's not how our minds work. Instead, he says bad news about one carmaker's product is likely to shake confidence in all cars. Ropeik says something like that happened a few years ago with a medical device. The news media began reporting that one company was having problems with its implantable defibrillators and seemed to be trying to hide those problems.
ROPEIK: When that hit the news, people with defibrillators from all major manufacturers rushed to the hospital to have them all taken out of their hearts. This will probably have an affect more broadly than just Toyota, even if all the other cars come up clean.
HAMILTON: Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
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