Do Recalls Really Make Us Safer?

Bad drivers are far more dangerous than bum Toyotas.

Also in Slate, Farhad Manjoo says we shouldn’t be worried that computer software controls our cars.

Have you heard about the operational crisis in the modern car? Recent news accounts are awash with evidence: cars that suddenly accelerate out of control, that careen through signalized intersections, weave across lanes with fatal consequences, spin wildly into people’s houses, and cannot stop in time to avoid killing (nonjaywalking) pedestrians.

What went wrong with the car in each of these cases? The driver. The recent coverage of the Toyota recall—which has occasioned any number of Do you feel safe driving your Toyota? polls—hints that the single greatest source of danger on the road has become the car itself. The reports have prompted some suggestions that the modern car is too computerized, too complicated. But the reality is that “vehicle factors”—which is how researchers generally classify mechanical malfunctions when assigning crash causality—cause an extremely small number of crashes in this country, coming in well below the leading categories of driver and highway factors. (Injury-reduction professionals, I should note, would rarely cite a single factor in determining the cause of a crash, preferring a matrix approach that examines how the various factors intermingle. An icy road or a speeding driver or faulty steering in and of themselves do not guarantee a crash or an injury, but each of those factors may come into play.)

This GAO report, for example, found that in a sample of more than 700,000 crashes, “a specific vehicle-related failure might have contributed to the crash” in only 2 percent of cases. And a “vehicle-related failure” need not implicate the manufacturer: Worn brakes or bald tires that the driver should have long ago replaced can also be coded as a “vehicle factor.” On the flip side, crash reporting is notoriously inexact. As one crash investigator explained when I asked him about “vehicle factors”: “[A]n experienced cop will know that if he checks that box, he is likely going to get some nasty cross examination in court regarding his ability, or lack of ability to determine if a part is defective or not. Would you check that box if you knew an OEM [or ‘original equipment manufacturer’] lawyer would likely be cross-examining you if you check that box?”

But as Leonard Evans, a former GM engineer and traffic safety authority, notes, any loss of life that may have resulted from Toyota’s now infamous mechanical deficiencies should be considered in a broader context:

According to various reports, 19 deaths have been associated with Toyota’s gas pedal problem over the past decade. But over the same decade, a total of 21,110 people have been killed in Toyota vehicles, with an additional 1,261 killed in Lexus cars (based on analyzing 1999-2008 fatality data from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). Almost none of these deaths had anything to do with technology, faulty or otherwise. Almost all of them were the result of driver behavior.

In other words, intentional acceleration is a far bigger problem than unintentional acceleration. Unfortunately, it is far easier to regulate and recall faulty vehicles than faulty drivers. In the United States, for example, it seems virtually impossible for the even the most wantonly reckless driver to lose his driving privileges. One Illinois study identified 160 drivers on the road statewide with five DUI convictions on record. Study newspaper coverage of crashes, and the passive voice—and a tendency to avoid directly implicating a driver—dominates. A minor semantic point, perhaps, but studies suggest the passive voice can reduce a person’s perception of perpetrator blame in a crime. 

I don’t mean to absolve Toyota or any other auto manufacturer of their duty to make safe cars. After all, carmakers have tried to shirk responsibility before (as in the notorious Ford Pinto case, or when problems arose with the Audi 5000), often showing resistance in the face of clear hazards. In a broader sense, historically, manufacturers have often implied that it is more important to “fix the nut behind the wheel” than introduce costly safety improvements to vehicles; they’ve resisted everything from safety glass to nonflammable interiors to collapsible steering columns, and such improvements are often put in place only after litigation. “This company is run by salesmen not engineers,” as one Ford engineer put it. “The priority is styling, not safety.”      

And while safety for interior occupants has increased dramatically in recent decades, you could still argue that the majority of cars on the road today leave the factory with safety defects built into them: An ability to go well beyond the legal speed limit on any U.S. public road, for one; or, in many cases, car designs that increase the chances of pedestrian fatalities. (By contrast, all cars sold in the European Union will by 2015 have to comply with comparatively stringent standards for mitigating pedestrian injury set by the European Enhanced Safety Vehicle Committee.)

But even though bum drivers cause more fatalities than bum cars, the Toyota recall still raises a number of interesting questions: Why has there been so much coverage? Do auto recalls actually improve car safety? And is there a broader effect, either positive or negative, on traffic safety in society at large?

The coverage is easy to explain. Whereas previous auto recalls have often involved smaller brands, or relatively minor mechanical faults, this recall involved the world’s largest car manufacturer (one for which recalls were relatively rare), and the defect was life-threatening.

In the case of this particular recall, media coverage has presumably been a good thing—both putting pressure on the manufacturer and alerting drivers. Curiously, that last bit is often not so easy. As research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found, previous recalls have generated response rates of anywhere from 34 percent to 60 percent. Communications researcher Dirk Gibson has found that response rates vary by type—68 percent of people bring their cars in to be fixed when the vehicles is the problem, but only 51 percent do when the fault lies with accessory equipment. Tire recalls garnered a mere 28 percent response rate.

It is unclear to what extent media coverage helps drive response rates. Recall expert Nicholas Rupp, looking at the Wall Street Journal over a two-decade period, found that most recalls received no coverage (in the 1980s NHTSA discontinued its practice of issuing a press release for each recall); another study found that 72 percent of drivers responded to recalls because of official notifications. On the other hand, Rupp has found that the more recalls were reported by the media (the Wall Street Journal, in this study), the higher the repair rate. It could simply be that more severe recalls generate both a higher response rate and more media coverage. 

While many studies have looked at the impact of recalls on stock prices or a company’s public perception, there has been little research examining the link between recalls and safety. A paper by economists Hugo Benitez-Silva and Yong-Kyun Bae analyzed crash and recall data for 20 vehicle models and concluded: “The higher the correction rates of a recall, the lower the number of accidents of that year model in the three years following the recall.” As Kevin M. McDonald has pointed out, however, other factors might be in play: Perhaps people drive differently after a recall, or perhaps they drive less (as their car ages or they feel less confident in it).

A more elusive question is what effect the coverage of recalls might have on the people who do not drive the vehicles in question. First, there is the issue of our faith in the modern vehicle. Even as recalls are more common now than they used to be, cars have become longer lived and cheaper to maintain, in part, ironically, because of the lean production techniques championed by Toyota. As a result, we may be overly confident in our cars. Improved braking and handling have led to higher average speeds (at least on noncongested roads). New technologies like “active noise cancellation” help reduce cabin noise—which might reduce stress but also lower a driver’s “situational awareness,” or his sense of what’s happening around him. (Quieter cars breed higher speeds.) If the Toyota coverage served, however unintentionally, to remind drivers of their own mortality in even the “safest” of modern cars, we might expect a sort of safety halo effect from the recalls.

But a more worrisome result is that the Toyota controversy, and its attendant publicity, will skew perceptions of where the real road risk lies: With the person behind the wheel. The risk psychologist Paul Slovic has identified a number of conditions that amplify our perception of risk, among them things that are novel, things that are in clusters, or cases when our exposure is involuntary or out of our control. Unintentional acceleration certainly punches these buttons. But these perceptions of risk are out of whack: Consider, for example, that even if many more fatal cases of unintentional acceleration come to light, the toll would scarcely begin to match the number of people killed every year in “backover” accidents in parking lots and driveways.

If past recalls are any guide, Toyota will gradually regain consumer confidence. The defect—and the litigation that will greet it—should lead to a design fix, making the car that much safer. But a safer car does not ensure a safer driver.Become a fan of  Slate  on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.