How safe is safe enough?

Toyota has been in the news of late in a manner they’d just as soon not. Unintended acceleration has joined undocumented immigrant in our lexicon as a clever obfuscation of the underlying issue. It stands to reason that the majority of people who plow into a crowded pedestrian mall under full power don’t intend to do so. What remains unanswered is why it might have happened.

The AP informs us the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced unintended acceleration in Toyotas “may have been involved in 89 deaths over the past decade.”

Gov’t: 89 deaths tied to Toyota acceleration

By KEN THOMAS (AP) – 1 hour ago

WASHINGTON — Unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles may have been involved in the deaths of 89 people over the past decade, upgrading the number of deaths possibly linked to the massive recalls, the government said Tuesday.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that from 2000 to mid-May, it had received more than 6,200 complaints involving sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles. The reports include 89 deaths and 57 injuries over the same period. Previously, 52 deaths had been suspected of being connected to the problem.

The automaker said “many complaints in the NHTSA database, for any manufacturer, lack sufficient detail that could help identify the cause of an accident. We will continue to work in close partnership with law enforcement agencies and federal regulators with jurisdiction over accident scenes whenever requested.”

In the aftermath of the recalls, Congress is considering upgrading auto safety laws to stiffen potential penalties against automakers, give the government more powers to demand a recall and push car companies to meet new safety standards.Never let a “crisis” go to waste, better step in and impose a vast new regulatory burden on automakers.

As I mentioned before, very few people are going to admit they were standing on the wrong pedal as they careened into a crowd. Heck no, they were pressing the brake as hard as they could but the car just kept accelerating! Who wouldn’t willingly accept the sympathetic explanation of a factory defect rather than driver error?

Toyota has recalled ~8 million of the 20+ million cars they’ve sold over the past decade due to an issue with floor mats possibly interfering with the gas pedal, so the accelerator could theoretically become lodged behind a mat. They’ve also looked at cars with “sticky pedals.” Of the 6,200 incidents of “unintended acceleration” some may have indeed been the result of a mechanical issue.

But up to now the NHTSA has assured us the vast majority of sudden acceleration cases were the result of driver error. What’s changed – other than the ownership of GM and Chrylser – that has them singing a different tune now?

Try a little experiment in your own car. Find a nice stretch of open road, depress the gas pedal all the way with your right foot, then apply panic braking force to the brake pedal with your left foot. You will stop.

Perhaps the only upside to this kerfuffle will be the added expense to car buyers of an automotive “black box” installed in all new vehicles. Assuming trial lawyer lobby doesn’t kill that particular regulation with a tooth and nail assault. It’s a whole lot easier to villainize a multi-billion dollar auto manufacturer than poor old Widow Henderson after she misapplied what she thought was the brakes. As more and older drivers chose to buy Toyotas, these sudden acceleration claims were bound to increase.

Fatalities per vehicle mile traveled has fallen by 300% since 1971. Cars have never been safer. Perhaps federal regulations have played a part, but even the greediest CEO of a car company knows the dead make lousy repeat customers. Just how much safer can cars be made? And how many research dollars that could have gone to vehicle safety went to meeting arbitrary and ever-increasing federally mandated fuel mileage standards?

The National Academy of Sciences has linked mileage standards with about 2,000 deaths per year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that every 100-pound reduction in the weight of small cars increases annual traffic fatalities by as much as 715.

Compare that to 89 fatalities in a decade. Who’s the real villain?

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