Thursday, March 4, 2010

Threats to Civilization: Runaway Toyota Edition

I've been watching this whole media feeding frenzy about Toyota safety out of the corner of one eye with mild bemusement.  I made some attempts to find some actual statistics on this a few weeks back, and couldn't.  Now, via Kevin Drum, I see that the L.A. Times is reporting that they can account for 56 people killed by this issue.  It's unclear in the story whether this is since 2000 or 2003, but if we put the worst complexion on it for Toyota, the annual death rate due to this issue in the United States is 56/7 = 8.

To put this in context, I made the graph above, which is a slightly rough and ready comparison with other interesting causes of deaths.  Heart disease and cancer are the leading causes of death in the US, and the numbers for those, along with murders and suicides, are annual totals for 2006 from the Centers for Disease Control.  The number for all auto accident fatalities is the 2008 total from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.  The figure for lightning deaths is for 2008 according to the National Weather Service.

If we just focus on the auto accident deaths, I haven't found any numbers broken out by manufacturer, but Toyota's market share has been about 16% in recent years.  So the next graph compares the 8 assumed annual deaths due to runaway Toyotas, with all other causes of auto accident death, and then with all auto deaths rescaled by Toyota's market share.  The actual number of US residents who die in a Toyota accident each year could be somewhat higher or lower, but that's the ballpark.

As you can see, the runaway acceleration problem accounts for at most a few parts in one thousand of all auto accident deaths involving a Toyota.

I read that Congress is holding hearings on this, the President of Toyota has been over to personally apologize, and now we are contemplating criminal investigations:

Separately, the Los Angeles city attorney's office is opening a preliminary criminal investigation of Toyota, examining a range of potentially illegal behavior, including false advertising and making unsupported assurances to Toyota owners about the safety of their vehicles.

The city became concerned about its own liability because it owns about 750 Toyota vehicles in its fleet, said Jeffrey Isaacs, deputy chief of the special operations and litigation division. And the city pension fund owns Toyota stock, he said.

and Toyota's sales are sharply down:

Toyota Motor Corp., recalling more than 8 million cars worldwide, may lose more than 1 percentage point of U.S. market share this year from a previous analyst estimate and give sales to Ford Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co.
Toyota will fall behind Ford and drop to No. 3 in U.S. sales, Santa Monica, California-based researcher said in lowering its market share projection today. Nissan Motor Co. and Hyundai Motor Co. also may benefit from a temporary shift in demand, according to a report by JPMorgan Chase & Co.

I realize that it's a personal tragedy for the family and friends of each one of those 56 people, but I can't help thinking that, as a society, we could use a clearer sense of perspective here.


Manolo said...

I just wonder how many " auto accident deaths" are actually suicides...we do know this exists, but it's almost never reported.
Just a thought.

Gary said...

Yes, I'm always amazed at how overblown and out of proportion some things get. It is really a disservice to the public to engage in the hype. How about a real statistic that we can actually do something about - Diabetes kills ~75,000 per year in the U.S. and is largely preventable with diet and lifestyle changes. For media coverage proportional to the harm caused, we would need 10,000 times as many stories on diabetes as on Toyota brake failures. Even the deaths from 9/11 are less than a month of usual diabetes deaths. This is just one example - there are many others.

KLR said...

To quote Rod Serling, submitted for your approval: EXIT MUNDI, a collection of end of world scenarios. Quite the cavalcade of exotic forms of death, almost all of them very very very unlikely to actually do you in, but try telling that to some. I've tsk-tsk-tsk-ed people who were fairly frothing about the danger of the Yellowstone caldera supererupting and superkilling us all, in all likelihood this week of course!!!!!!!!!!!! A blase 9.0 earthquake or Mt Rainer burying 10s of thousands under a lahar just isn't as gripping.

Had to pick up a new auto at Christmas time, since Santa and/or the incompetent engineers at Dodge decided it would be a good idea to allow for the possibility of coolant seeping into the transmission bearings when enough components had cracked. New ride? 2007 Yaris. Great MPG. Only qualm? "Eccentric" accelerator. But it's just touchy, I'm not sweating about the thing going nuts on me.

Have seen some random links on accelerator problems in other makes; also conspiracy theories about the undue focus on Toyota.