While I agree that it is very difficult for loved ones whenever anyone dies in an automobile accident, and while I understand why those left behind want very badly to find out what went wrong and who was at fault, there’s a fine line between constructive inquiry and political show. Without the help of either, the problem is that we still haven’t quite figured out how to stop traffic deaths from happening.
The latest figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show that fatality data for 2008 “placed the highway death count at 37,261, a drop of 9.7 percent from 2007.” While safety continues to improve, note that approximately 37,000 people died in a traffic accidents in 2008.
If you’re concerned about these figures, and if you’ve been paying attention to the drama unfolding surrounding Toyota Motor Company, you probably want to know the answers to two questions: First, what are the safest cars on the road today? Second, how does Toyota stack up in regard to producing safe cars?
On the latter, the answer is “very well.” In fact, a recent study of the NHTSA’s complaint database found that “NHTSA’s own data shows: Only drivers of Mercedes Benz, Porsches and Smarts have less to kvetch than Toyota owners.”
Out of the 20 top brands, Toyota ranked 17th. In addition, 25.3 percent of the complaints were for automobiles produced by the federal government’s own General Motors — however, when looking at complaints per car, GM actually ranked in 11th place, better than Ford, Chrysler and Volvo. Toyota, of course, had fewer complaints per car than all of the major automobile manufacturers, U.S. and Foreign, except for the three mentioned above. As the driver of a 1995 Toyota station wagon that stills performs like a new car, I’m not the least bit surprised.
So, if this is the case, why is everyone–especially Congress and the media–so hyped up? Actually, this reminds me of the Ford Pinto case from a number of years ago. At that time, Ford was accused of causing hundreds of terrible, fiery deaths as a result of rear-end collisions and a badly placed fuel tank. The press went wild, Congress went wild, and Ford took it on the chin.
Still today, many are convinced that Ford was at fault and that they had allowed these people to die even though they knew that the placement of the fuel tank was a problem. You will find this case still being discussed in many college ethics classes as an example of unethical corporate behavior. But is it the truth?
Even though the impression was left by the media (which has never been good at reporting data that doesn’t support their agendas) that hundreds died in Ford Pinto fires, research by Gary T. Schwartz of Rutgers University shows that the number of deaths when Pintos caught on fire due to a rear-end collision were 27 — not hundreds. While no deaths are acceptable it is impossible to build a car, even today, that guarantees nobody will die in a crash. When you consider the number of Pintos sold–two million–and the miles driven, that’s an exceptionally low figure.
In fact, the Pinto was the safest car in its class sold in the United States at that time, meaning that it had less fatal accidents than any other subcompact and no more fatal accidents than the average mid-sized car. What this tells us is that people who purchased the competition had a better chance of dying in a crash than those that purchased the Pinto. It is true that, in regard to rear-end collisions, the Pinto’s fatality rate among subcompacts was somewhat higher — but certainly was “not enough to support a claim of it being a major highway hazard.”
What Ford had done was look at the potential for death as it related to company costs, which directly affects profitability, which directly affects the ability of a company to hire employees, pay dividends, and do the research needed to make their cars even safer. While on the surface it seems insensitive to relate costs to risk that could potentially lead to deaths, the idea of balancing risk with cost savings is not only acceptable but in many instances recommended; even considered essential. It may pain you to know this, but this practice will probably become even more prevalent in the future. In fact, not only do all kinds of industries treat this as a normal and recommended practice, the National Health Plan being presented by the administration will depend heavily on this kind of analysis. In fact, the plans proposed by the House and Senate and White House all have provisions for the creation of boards, commissions and bureaucracies solely intended to balance risk of death with cost.
So, if all of this is true, why the hype and why didn’t Ford fight it? There are a number of reasons, all of which are very common in our “freedom of the press” society:
Number one, only bad news sells papers. If it bleeds, it leads, and the media has a habit of sensationalizing on the front page and running corrections at the bottom of page A-16.
Second, Congress is always looking for ways to prove that it is “looking out for the people.” With our current system of electing representatives every two years, any controversy where Congress can “prove” that they are worthy of being re-elected is jumped on. Or, as Rahm Emanuel said, “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” For those in Congress, this means, “I need every crisis I can find to get re-elected.”
And third, it is extremely difficult to justify any deaths at all when you are under this kind of scrutiny; using a cost/risk analysis as your “excuse” would be counterproductive at the least and a PR nightmare at the worst. It’s better to just take your lumps and move on; as Toyota seems to be doing today.
Finally, Toyota is non-union and that is a great threat to the unions which, especially in this administration, wield major power. If there’s any way to force Toyota to become a union shop or make non-union life more difficult, the current administration–with its close links to and intimate relationships with the most powerful unions in the world today–would not hesitate to make that happen.
The Toyota case has a couple of other ingredients that the Ford Pinto case did not have. Unlike earlier, this time around the government has a major stake in General Motors and Toyota is undoubtedly its single-greatest competitor. This conflict-of-interest, of course, is one of the best reasons for keeping the government out of the private sector, including health care. It’s not unreasonable to question he ulterior motives of everyone involved, and as the power the government to eliminate competition is unraveled, anyone who thinks government run health care won’t ultimately end up as a single-payer system is extremely naïve.
Ultimately, what we’re seeing now with Toyota is all smoke and mirrors, as millions of Toyota owners will happily attest to. If the media and Congress prevail, Americans will be forced into cars that are less safe and the chances of a traffic-related death happening to someone you love will be increased, and not lowered.