Toyota Safety in Perspective

NAF’s Robert Wright argues that the current panic over Toyota safety is a function of inumeracy.

My back-of-the-envelope calculations (explained in a footnote below) suggest that if you drive one of the Toyotas recalled for acceleration problems and don’t bother to comply with the recall, your chances of being involved in a fatal accident over the next two years because of the unfixed problem are a bit worse than one in a million — 2.8 in a million, to be more exact. Meanwhile, your chances of being killed in a car accident during the next two years just by virtue of being an American are one in 5,244.

So driving one of these suspect Toyotas raises your chances of dying in a car crash over the next two years from .01907 percent (that’s 19 one-thousandths of 1 percent, when rounded off) to .01935 percent (also 19 one-thousandths of one percent).

Or, to put it in other terms:  You have better chance of being struck by lightning (1/750,000) than being involved in an accident because your Toyota suddenly accelerates.

via Katherine Mangu-Ward

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Sure, but lightning has no incentive to settle out of court.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    James, you may recall that I made a similar observation on the show a couple of weeks ago. Indeed, I suspect that Toyota is considering the matter in much that light.

    However, I think that it matters whether the fault is caused by a failure of workmanship or not. If it’s just that the sudden unintended acceleration occurs once in every so many million driver-miles, it’s one thing. If it occurs 100% of the time under some as yet unknown circumstances, it’s something quite different.

  3. PD Shaw says:

    My chance of being killed driving a Toyota is zero since I don’t own, nor intend to own, one.

  4. Anon says:

    It is so completely overblown and ridiculous. As usual, the media do a horrible job. They do worse than nothing. For example, comparing the number of Toyotas with UA reports against the number of other brands without considering the number of cars involved or the number of miles driven.

    And the test that was performed by the professor from Southern Illinois was a complete joke. It just goes to show the complete lack of engineering sense of the vast majority of journalists and the public.

  5. William d'Inger says:

    If you drive a car with a known defect for two years without getting it fixed, don’t expect me to award you anything if I’m on the jury.

  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    One of the things I love about this blog is that it attracts so many aspergers engineering types, with their complete ignorance of humans.

    The mathematical odds are irrelevant to this kind of decision when seen from the perspective of a human.

    Q: Will this Honda/Mercedes/Ford suddenly accelerate so that I go hurtling down the freeway at 100 mph while my kids shriek in terror and we all die in a fiery crash?

    A: No.

    Q: Will this Toyota suddenly accelerate so that I go hurtling down the freeway at 100 mph while my kids shriek in terror and we all die in a fiery crash?

    A: Maybe.

    Can you see how that might be a problem for Toyota?

  7. Herb says:

    Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don’t do one.

    Fight Club

  8. Anon says:

    Q: Will this Honda/Mercedes/Ford suddenly accelerate so that I go hurtling down the freeway at 100 mph while my kids shriek in terror and we all die in a fiery crash?

    A: No.

    The problem is that the answer to this is also “Maybe”. Reports of UA occur across all brands. The real problem isn’t so much with the public, as with the media for not helping to accurately inform the public.

  9. Michael Reynolds says:


    Do you have some evidence that other people’s cars are suddenly accelerating out of control? I doubt it. Because if there was evidence of out of control acceleration on Hondas and Fords I’m pretty sure Toyota would be telling us all about it.

    I don’t argue that Toyotas have higher overall risks. The fact is more people probably die by virtue of less effective brakes on cheaper makes. But that doesn’t mean every brand has Toyota’s acceleration issues, or that Toyota doesn’t have a problem.

  10. Anon says:

    MR, the fact that you are not aware that other brands have UA illustrates the bad job the media is doing. Just Google for “nhtsa unintended acceleration ford” and you’ll see thousands of hits.

    Note that it is true that Toyota has more reports. However, you are the one that divided the odds into two categories “No” and “Maybe”, not I.

    I think we both agree that humans are irrational when it comes to risk. My only complaint is against the media for not doing a better job.

    Also, at this point there is virtually nothing that Toyota can do. At those low failure rates (in relative frequency), their engineers most likely have only guesses as to why their cars have higher reported incidences. Physical inspection of the cars has revealed nothing definitive. I’m sure that they have double-checked their computer code, re-run all the validation tests, scratched their heads thinking about whether or not they could have missed anything in the code…and come up with nothing. (Yes, there are techniques known as formal verification, but those probably cannot be used in this case due to the nature of the systems.)

    Physically, they have obviously had some guesses such as floor mats and pedals, but it will be essentially impossible to “prove” that they have solved the problem, because their UA report incidence is never going to hit zero. (As the fact that all major brands have reports of UA shows.)

    Of course Toyota is a business like any other, and of course they are out to maximize their profits like any other business. I just think that at this point Toyota is more just up against some fundamental limitations in engineering rather than making a cold business calculation.

  11. Anon says:

    Here is a good database. You can see that even in 2009, VW actually had a higher rate per vehicle than Toyota. As another example, in 2004, many brands had higher rates than Toyota did in 2009. In 2003, SAAB had a whopping 23.2 complaints per 100,000 vehicles. That’s about 3 times the rate for 2009, yet there was nary a peep about it from the media.

  12. john personna says:

    If I recall correctly, I am one of the few (second generation model) Prius drivers here. I feel pretty safe. Moreso since I saw this unfortunate age correlation at MR. I’m too young for my car to attack me:

    In the 24 cases where driver age was reported or readily inferred, the drivers included those of the ages 60, 61, 63, 66, 68, 71, 72, 72, 77, 79, 83, 85, 89—and I’m leaving out the son whose age wasn’t identified, but whose 94-year-old father died as a passenger.

    Of course, it could just be the latent aspergers’ tendency in me to look to numbers, rather than just how scary Priuses feel right now.

    (The correlation is of course not a lock on causality, the median age of Prius drivers is probably higher than the median age of drivers in general. Something about seeing gas prices creep up for a few decades moves you toward high MPG.

    … by my calcs, with almost 66K miles on the car, I’ve saved $6,000 in gas over the alternative, driving a “normal” car. Not bad. I spent half of that (mental accounting!) on a nice mountain bike.)

  13. Raoul says:

    The chances of being killed by a terrorist attack are also infinitesimally small but that does not stop us from spending hundred of billions of dollars in protection.

  14. Franklin says:

    You may also recall that Audi lost about 15 years of sales in the United States due to a completely bogus report on 60 Minutes about “sudden acceleration”.

    The media isn’t doing anything new this time. And people are still irrational. Neither of these things will ever change.

  15. Franklin says:

    On another note, perhaps we should train all new drivers to left foot brake. This would probably solve 90% of the “problems” right there. It’s not at all uncomfortable – you’ve probably all done this at the local go-kart track or on any arcade racing game.

    The right foot braking technique is a legacy of having clutch pedals, which are becoming pretty rare these days. It does pain me to say that as a driving aficiando who can heel-toe it around a racetrack, but it’s true. For those who like to shift, paddle shifters are the future: the best ones are already faster and safer than 99.99% of humans.

  16. Joey B says:

    If drug manufacturers sell meds that cause 1 death in 5 million people they are pulled off the market for safety of consumers. This is much more of a hazard to people who may be killed when a toyota goes haywire and the people in other vehicles are killed or hurt. Take these toyotas off the road by order of our gov. for safety sake. This is assinine that they knowingly allow these junks to be driven And furthermore drivers of these cars should be held equaly responsible for driving them knowing this car can kill some inocent person. Joey B

  17. Joey B says:

    Buy American made folks.

  18. James Joyner says:

    Buy American made folks.

    Actually, most Toyotas sold and driven in the United States are American-made.

  19. Joey B says:

    I meant real American cars. I own 2 Fords a New Tauris 1996f150 pickup and a 2007 Chevy Corvette ,which as far as I am concerned has the best resale value and bang for your buck I have owned a 2000,2002,2004,2005,and the 2007. Never had one major problem. Its all about American owned and founded companies. The owners of foreighn car companys dont give a hoot about Americans or America. Just our money. They wont get a dime from me. Joey B

  20. Anon says:

    Buy American made folks.

    Its all about American owned and founded companies.

    Charmingly quaint.

    Are you enjoying your television purchased decades ago, the last time there were any American-made TVs? And I’m assuming that you hand-crafted the computer you are using to access the Internet, including the hard drive, since that’s the only way that you are going to find a computer made in the US.

  21. But what everyone really want to know is Anon a true Scotsman?

  22. Franklin says:

    I actually never know where to stand on the “Buy American” thing. First off, there’s the confusion of where products including parts are built and where the money goes. But more deeply, does it promote our way of life, or does it simply promote inefficiencies by not buying purely based on direct cost/benefit? How much I should weigh my perception of the relative superiority of our way of life (if any)? What if it was built in Florida, which I hate?

    In the end, I tend to give a minor consideration to this issue.

  23. floyd says:

    I expect we are seeing only the tip of the iceberg here…and once again, it’s incompetent government, which regulates from a position of abject ignorance, at the center of the problem.
    Recent mandates of electronic controls such as
    ABS,TCS,ESC,TPMS, etc will soon show their true colors as the autos equipped with these controls age.
    The Obama administration recently intimated a new mandate of positive throttle release upon braking in response to the Toyota debacle.
    This will mean even more reliance on electronics where simple mechanical devices would prove to be better and cheaper.
    A simple throttle cable is demonstrably superior to the Rub Goldberg electronic approach made necessary by regulations and mandates.
    I admittedly have no first hand experience with the Toyota failures, but I do have many years dealing with fleets,and have dealt with automotive electronics since their inception in the early ’70s. I have not heard anyone explain why the Toyotas could not be shifted to neutral and/or have the ignition switched off at the first sign of the problem. Apparently these things can not be accomplished while underway??

  24. john personna says:

    To give a partial answer to your last question floyd, the Prius actually expects you to switch on the fly. It has neutral as well as an engine braking mode. It doesn’t sound nearly as impressive as when a semi does it, but it works.

    It is fly-by-wire though, an electrical switch the computer follows, rather than a mechanical control.

    I’ve switched from drive to both neutral and engine-braking on the fly, and when the computer isn’t in this suggested crazy-mode it all works fine.

    I guess the suggestion is that in uncontrolled acceleration the computer is in crazy-mode and stops listening to inputs.

  25. joey b says:

    Send all toyotas to the junk yard. They cannot fix them or they would have already.

  26. joey b says:

    I bet Mr Toyoda drives a Bently