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OPINION: Drivers are more dangerous than defects

Michael Fumento is director of the nonprofit Independent Journalism Project, where he specializes in health and safety issues. This is adapted from the Los Angeles Times.

 

While driving with my future wife along California's Highway 1, my new Toyota MR2 suddenly fishtailed. It shot off a cliff, then rolled 350 feet before stopping. Mary sustained a broken neck and crushed skull, but she made a miraculous recovery. I suffered only scratches and bruises. The pavement was dry, I was under the speed limit, and skid marks testified to my desperate effort to stop.

That was 1992. While Mary was still in the hospital, I discovered Toyota was replacing the model because, according to one car magazine, expert drivers reported that it suffered "radical, often terminal oversteer." We settled out of court, with Toyota making no admission of liability.

You might think I'd be prejudiced against Toyotas after that. But I later bought another one, and my wife owns one now. What I am worried about, with the current avalanche of unintended-acceleration complaints against the company and the congressional hearings, is the hysteria promoted by sensationalist headlines and pompous government officials.

Every accidental death is a tragedy. But the imagery of Toyotas running amok like something out of a Stephen King novel is simply false. Toyota does seem to have a real problem. But when compared with the vast number of cars it sells, the current reaction is wholly out of proportion.

Sudden acceleration in Toyotas over the past decade has been linked with - which doesn't mean "caused" - 52 deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It was just 19 before the current publicity. A Los Angeles Times investigation brought it up to 56, including those culled from lawsuits.

Whatever the count and cause, it's too many. But that's also out of 20 million Toyotas sold, and the 420,000 Americans NHTSA says died in motor vehicle accidents that decade. And although Toyota had almost 17 percent of total U.S. car sales in 2008, it accounted for merely 8 percent of total claims for deaths and injuries in the first quarter of that year.

Edmunds.com found that while Toyota was third in U.S. car sales from 2001 through 2010, it was 17th in NHTSA complaints. Thus, even if every sudden-acceleration complaint proved valid, Toyotas are among the safest cars made.

Moreover, some of those reports surely could have been driver fault. To err is human; to blame errors on external factors is even more so.

Toyota is the world's second-largest auto producer, and for good reason. Despite getting bad press last year, it came out as far and away the top-quality automaker, according to Consumer Reports' 2010 reader survey. Toyota directly and indirectly employs about 200,000 Americans, and directly invests more than $18 billion in this country every year.

Yet there's another tragedy in this hysteria, some auto safety experts say: the wrong focus.

"Nobody wants to minimize any deaths Toyota defects may have caused," says Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "But vehicle defects are just a tiny, tiny part of what leads to crashes."

Leonard Evans, author of the book "Traffic Safety," also bemoans what he calls "the lethal American obsession with technical flaws." Evans said: "Whether it's . . . defect or a child darting into the road, most crashes occur because drivers don't leave an adequate safety margin."

"One hundred people are . . . killed every day, and it has nothing to do with technology, recent or otherwise," Evans says. "We can cut that number by half by concentrating on driver attitudes."

Defects can lead to terrible circumstances over which a driver has no control. I'll never forget that, nor will my wife, who now suffers from epilepsy that's probably a result of the crash. But while it's the extraordinary that makes for headlines and congressional demagoguery, focusing on the ordinary is what will truly save lives.

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