Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Toyotaphobia Sweeps the Nation

If you've been in a completely non-industrialized part of the world for the last month or two, you might have missed that Toyota has recalled about 9 million vehicles due to unintended acceleration problems and problems with pedals getting caught in floor mats.  They have also stopped manufacturing or selling the affected models until a fix can be put in place.  This is disastrous news for a company that has built its business on reliability.

Pundits have been all over the news discussing Toyota's future.  On Marketplace this afternoon, one commentator said that it can take an entire generation -- 20 years or so -- for a company to recover from a problem like this.  The host commented that an informal poll around the office showed that no one was going to buy the Toyotas even after they were fixed.

I understand why the brand has taken a hit.  I understand that you can't turn a profit if you can't manufacture and sell your product.  What seems unreasonable, however, is the sheer level of fear this is causing people.

Based on the mass anti-Toyota feelings around the country, you might think that hundreds or even thousands of people have been seriously injured or killed in accident involving these defects.  People are treating their Toyotas as if they might turn on them at any moment, so the actual numbers involved might surprise you.  For the floor mat problem, the NTSB has identified 2 incidents that caused 5 deaths.  For the accidental acceleration problem, the NTSB has identified no fatalities at all.  Other organizations say there have been 2,000 incidents with 19 deaths in the acceleration defect.  So, at worst, we're talking about 24 deaths over up to 10 years.

I don't mean to discount the tragedy that has befallen the families and loved ones of these 24 people.  Any traumatic death is awful, particularly when it is avoidable.  I wouldn't be in this line of work if it weren't.  You might feel that this number of deaths represent an unacceptable risk.  If you do, it might be time for a little reality check.  More than 43,600 people died in motor vehicle accidents in 2006.  If Toyotas present a completely unacceptable risk to the point that you will never drive one again, then, you probably shouldn't be driving at all, since driving itself is much, much more risky than any one brand.

We are sucked into this recall and its hype because it's Toyota and because it affects so many cars and hence so many consumers.  Certainly if we can avoid another 24 deaths in these vehicles, we should.  We shouldn't, however, confuse a big story with a big risk.  We do riskier things than drive a Toyota every day.


Matt said...

One child died at the beginning of the pig flu pandemic, and the hand sanitizer aisle at the drug store sold out. Six months later, when several thousand people had died, Americans got vaccinated at a rate of less than 30% of the population, with nearly equal numbers of people believing all sorts of urban legends that the vaccine was unsafe. Risk assessment is not a strong point in the populace at large, particularly with our woeful undereducation in basic probability theory and overexposure to media.

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