Toyota, the world's top-selling automaker, recently announced a recall of up to ten million of its vehicles over reports of sudden uncontrollable acceleration. But it's not clear exactly what the problem is.
Some suspect sticking gas pedals, others believe it's a computer glitch. Whatever's causing it, the problem can be deadly. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Toyota recalls are linked to at least 50 reported fatalities.
One Arizona couple, Jerry and Shirley Kneipp, plan to testify before Congress about the problems they experienced in their Toyota truck, which they referred to as a "death trap." For the Kneipps — and others who have had terrifying personal experiences with runaway Toyotas — the vehicles are certainly dangerous.
Such stories are terrifying, but how common are they? Should most Toyota owners be afraid to drive their vehicles, even if they have never had a problem?
The news media has of course played up the alarmist aspects of the story, but a closer look at the incidents reveals that for most people the recalled cars pose a nearly insignificant danger. In fact, there are hundreds of things that are far more likely to injure or kill the average Toyota owner than an accident caused by sudden acceleration, including drunk drivers and the flu.
The 50 deaths occurred since 2000, for an average of five deaths per year. This is a miniscule relative risk of death: According to the National Safety Council, about 10 times as many people (468) die from falling off ladders each year, and 32 people are killed by dogs annually. A driver is about 10 times more likely to be killed by lightning than by a recalled Toyota.
Each year around 30,000 people are killed in auto accidents on America's roads and highways. The five or so deaths related to the recalled models make up less than one-third of 1 percent of the total number of auto deaths.
This knowledge is of course no consolation to families affected by the problem vehicles, but understanding the real risk should calm fears. Part of the reason that the public is so concerned is that people are very poor at accurately assessing risk, and overestimate the relative risks of many dangers. People will buckle their safety belts, yet text on their cell phones and read newspapers their while driving.
And, of course, all these dangers pale in comparison to the real threats to public health: heart disease, cancer, and stroke kill far more people than all the murders, car accidents, and natural disasters combined.
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Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His books, films, and other projects can be found on his website. His Bad Science column appears regularly on LiveScience.