Toyotas (and Fords) 600 times more dangerous than media reports

Car crash

Why do Americans have so many car crashes? It's the amount of time we spend in cars

An estimated 19 people have died in crashes related to unexpected acceleration in Toyota-made vehicles over the last decade. This has led to a national uproar, dominating the news cycle and flooding dealers with recalled autos to repair.

I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations to put the problem in perspective. In a year, Toyota drivers, if they are like other drivers, put about 11,400 miles on their vehicle.
Ten years of driving (114,000 miles, give or take), times
the number of vehicles involved in the recall (8 million),
the total miles driven by recalled vehicles over 10 years (912 billion miles; that’s 9.12 x 10^11 for you exponentially-minded people)

So dividing the number of deaths (19) by the total miles driven gives an estimated risk of death from sudden acceleration:
2 deaths per 100 bn vehicle miles traveled

To put that in perspective, in 2008, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calculates your risk of dying from an automobile accident at 1270 deaths per 100 bn vehicle miles traveled.

Hmmm. That means that you are over 600 times more likely to die in an automobile fatality in ANY make of car than you are to die from Toyota’s flawed acceleration system. Statistically speaking, stuck accelerators and faulty floor mats just don’t matter.

Getting in a car is inherently dangerous.

But it is worse than that. By building our cities the way we have since World War II, we in the United States are virtually forcing our citizens to make very dangerous choices, if they want to work, go to school, go to the doctor, or shop. Relatively few Americans live in neighborhoods where they can choose not to have a car, largely because we’ve built our cities on the cheap, failing to provide public transportation alternatives, outlawing mixed-use developments through perverse zoning policies, and subsidizing development on the margins of our cities with public money. In the case of land-use and transportation, we get exactly the system our policies promote.

Getting in a car is dangerous, and it’s hard to avoid getting in a car. It’s even dangerous for people who aren’t in the cars.

While we’ve abandoned the American landscape to the automobile, the death rate from traffic fatalities in the US, for passengers, drivers, and pedestrians, has leapfrogged past every other cause of death for children over the age of one, and it remains the leading cause of death even for young adults.

Citizens in the U.S. are twice as likely to die from automobiles as citizens in the United Kingdom, to take another developed world example; and we have the highest risk of any developed country, not because our roads are more dangerous, or our cars more deadly. Our death rate is sky-high because we expect people to drive everywhere, and therefore we spend much more time in cars than folks in other countries. We’ve built a landscape in which no one is seriously expected to walk or bike to any destination. This has an effect on our obesity rate, and on all the diseases driven by being overweight (diabetes, heart disease, stroke, stress, cancer). But the main health effect is on the number of Americans who die in the traffic epidemic.

But we take this deadly epidemic (and the corresponding injury rates) without blinking, having become convinced that it is somehow natural to have 35,000 Americans die each year on the road.

There are alternatives: it is possible to design healthy places that are not only safe but which cultivate community, flourishing economies, and happy families. For ideas, check out the Healthy Places section of the CDC website, or these other resources on healthy places for community developers at Flourish’s website.

Related resources:
How your church can do a walkability audit
“Walking to Justice (Walkability, Justice, and Healthy Cities)” by Rusty Pritchard, from current PRISM magazine (Jan/Feb 2010)
Flourish resource list on Walkability, Liveability, and Justice (for the CCDA conference)
Congress for New Urbanism
CDC Healthy Places

One thought on “Toyotas (and Fords) 600 times more dangerous than media reports

  1. Rusty, thanks for giving a valuable perspective to the recent Toyota flaws and recall. Your perspective makes me feel much better as a Toyota driver because of the relatively small percentage of fatalities involved in the “sticky petal problem.” But, more importantly, it underscores my decision to take a quiet walk in our deep snow this afternoon instead of driving to my office on campus (no classes today). Although cars seem to be a necessity for much of our getting about, recent trends like “rails to trails” for bicycling suggest that we can and should indeed be looking for ways to alter the paradigm of how we manage the land with respect to our transportation. Car transportation is only a necessity where we have made it so. Thanks for stimulating my thinking as I prepare to walk in the snow today.

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