The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

“Toyota Terror” and Media Scare-Mongering

Posted by mattusmaximus on February 15, 2010

Yes, we’ve all been hearing in the media lately about how Toyota is issuing major recalls for many of its most popular vehicles, such as the Camry & Prius.  The problems, we are told, range from sticky accelerator pedals to brakes that don’t function properly.  In addition, the media have made a really big point of noting that the accelerator problem has likely led to a whopping 19 deaths over the last decade!!!  ZOMG!!!11!1

Errr… that’s it?  19 deaths in a decade?  Really, that’s the big news?  Not to sound cold & heartless, but this seems so like the making of a molehill into a mountain in an effort by the media to keep a story going, when it’s obviously well past its “sell by” date.  To get a little perspective, let’s take a look at this responsible article by NPR on this issue…

Most Auto Accidents Caused By Drivers, Not Defects

Driving a Toyota may feel pretty risky these days, given all the scary stories about sudden acceleration, failing brakes and recalled vehicles. But that feeling has a lot more to do with emotion than statistics, experts say. That’s because defective vehicles are almost never the cause of serious crashes.

“The whole history of U.S. traffic safety in the U.S. has been one focusing on the vehicle, one of the least important factors,” says Leonard Evans, a physicist who worked for General Motors for three decades and wrote the book Traffic Safety.

To Err Is Human

Studies show that the vehicle itself is the sole cause of an accident only about 2 percent of the time. Drivers, on the other hand, are wholly to blame more than half the time and partly to blame more 90 percent of the time.

A look at data on Toyotas from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration confirms this pattern. The data show that in the decade ending in 2008, about 22,000 people were killed in vehicles made by Toyota or Lexus, Evans says. “All these people were killed because of factors that had absolutely nothing to do with any vehicle defect,” he says.

During that same period it’s possible, though not yet certain, that accelerator problems in Toyotas played a role in an additional 19 deaths, or about two each year, Evans says. And even if an accelerator does stick, drivers should be able to prevent most crashes by simply stepping on the brakes, Evans says. “The weakest brakes are stronger than the strongest engine,” he says.

Okay, let’s do the math here… over the last 10 years, there were 22,000 deaths in Toyotas that were unrelated to vehicle defects, compared to (possibly) 19 related to vehicle defects.  Folks, that’s a miniscule 0.0864% of the deaths that are possibly linked to Toyota vehicle defects!  A simple analysis of the statistics shows that this “threat” is blown waaaaay out of proportion – the problem is that most people are woefully ignorant of understanding basic statistics & probability, and this leads to all manner of logical fallacies.

So what’s going on here?  What’s happening is a classic example is that we have a predilection for letting emotions overcome reason when dealing with issues of personal risk.  Or, as the NPR article states:

Given all we know about the potential risks from Toyotas, we’re far more frightened than we need to be, Evans says. But that’s not surprising, says David Ropeik, a risk communication consultant in Massachusetts and the author of the book Risk.

“We don’t calculate risk based on our probabilistic chances of something bad happening,” Ropeik says. “Instead, much of our perception of risk comes down to how much we trust a person or company making a particular product.” And Toyota has lost people’s trust, in part because media reports have suggested the company was not upfront about known problems with some of its vehicles, he says.

People also tend to think something is especially dangerous if it’s being imposed on them, Ropeik says. “Imposed risk always feels much worse than the same risk if you choose to do it yourself,” he says. “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.”

Unfortunately, when the media gets hold of such a story and goes on and on and on about it, it only serves to amplify the fear factor, causing too much concern where it isn’t warranted.  Another effect is that it keeps people tuning into the media for updates on the story.  If we just take a few minutes to turn off the echo chamber of media noise in regards to such risk issues, and we apply our thinking in a rational manner, we can see that most of the time there is little, if anything, to fear.

Full disclosure: I am the proud owner & driver of a Toyota Prius.  Am I concerned?  Nope… but I usually play the odds, because I know the laws of probability don’t make an exception for little ol’ me ;)

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2 Responses to ““Toyota Terror” and Media Scare-Mongering”

  1. Lets not forget that Obama has always been a friend of the auto unions. It might be a coincdence, but there is no better way to pay back the unions than by knocking off the top non-union car manufacturer.

  2. This recall is blown out of proportion, recalls are bad but they all (manufacturers) go through them, I’m sticking with my Toyota Yaris.

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