Marketplace Scratch Pad

Oh, what a (bad) feeling

Scott Jagow Mar 9, 2010

Toyota announced another recall today — this time 2004-2009 Prius Hybrids — and this morning, there was another wreck involving such a Prius. A woman crashed into a stone wall in upstate New York. She said the accelerator got stuck. What is going on?

As I’m sure you’ve heard, yesterday, just hours after Toyota held a news conference to dispute an ABC story about acceleration problems, California police had to help a 61-year-old driver stop his Prius. He reached speeds of 94 mph, saying the accelerator was stuck. His car was a 2008 model. The woman in New York was driving a 2005.

It’s hard to deny that Toyota could have a serious flaw in its recent engineering, but it’s becoming more and more difficult to assess how much of this is mechanical and how much of it is psychological. Frank Ahrens at the Washington Post puts it this way:

An example from 100,000 years ago: The brain sees three of its caveman brain buddies get eaten by saber-toothed tigers. The caveman brain creates a simple pattern about a simple problem: All saber-toothed tigers are deadly. They are to be avoided. That may not be true, but it’s close enough for the caveman brain.

An example from today: The brain sees another runaway Toyota. The brain creates another simple pattern: All Toyotas are dangerous. But the brain is wrong this time because this is not a simple problem. It’s a highly complicated one. And we need to make our brains stretch to fully comprehend what is happening, instead of applying a simple, though understandable, solution to a complex situation.

Edmunds.com recently pointed out that unintended acceleration has been a problem for some time within the car industry as a whole. The website compiled the following list:

Toyota, consisting of its Toyota, Lexus and Scion brands, logged 1,133 consumer complaints of unintended acceleration filed with the NHTSA through Feb. 3.

Ford, including the Ford, Lincoln and Mercury models, received 387 complaints.

Chrysler, including the Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge models, was hit with 171 complaints.

General Motors, including the Pontiac, Cadillac, GMC, Saturn, Saab, Buick, Hummer and Chevrolet brands [including the Chevy Cobalt SS, above], tallied 152 complaints.

Honda, including its Acura division, received 113 complaints.

Nissan, including its Infiniti division, logged 62 complaints.

Last month, I heard a crisis management expert on Talk of the Nation say how the American consumer marketplace is very emotional and different from Germany and Japan. Is it possible that the emotional reaction to this situation is making people panic on the road?

A similar theme was echoed in today’s LA Times by Michael Fumento, director of the nonprofit Independent Journalism Project. Fumento, who was in a bad Toyota crash many years ago (and still drives Toyota) suggests that the extraordinary focus on a few dramatic incidents does a disservice to the goal of making the roads safer:

Leonard Evans, author of the book “Traffic Safety,” also bemoans what he calls “the lethal American obsession with technical flaws.” Evans said: “Whether it’s … defect or a child darting into the road, most crashes occur because drivers don’t leave an adequate safety margin.”

“One hundred people are . . . killed every day, and it has nothing to do with technology, recent or otherwise,” says Evans. “We can cut that number by half by concentrating on driver attitudes.”

Defects can lead to terrible circumstances over which a driver has no control. I’ll never forget, nor will my wife, who now suffers from epilepsy that’s probably a result of the crash. But while it’s the extraordinary that makes for headlines and congressional demagoguery, focusing on the ordinary is what will truly save lives.

I’m not trying to make a case for or against Toyota here. I’m simply trying to understand what it is that we’re actually witnessing. Any thoughts?

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