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Opinion: The Feds' Toyota Study Wasted More Than Money

Feb 8, 2011 – 3:39 PM
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The government just spent almost a year and who knows how much money investigating Toyota's "unintended acceleration" problem.

Surprise -- they found nothing.

Why should anyone have expected anything more? The Toyota models sold in the U.S. did not spontaneously accelerate outside the U.S. How can the same cars malfunction here and not elsewhere?

This was not merely a waste of taxpayers' money. It assigned skilled professionals to waste time refuting claims no more substantial than those of astrology, when they could have instead focused their attention where it could really make a difference in saving lives.

After all, the conclusion from 70 years of scientific research is blindingly clear. The overwhelming factor in traffic safety isn't in the vehicles, it's in the behavior of road users, especially drivers.

Other countries get this. In fact, Australia, Sweden, Canada, the Netherlands and the U.K. support serious traffic-safety research, addressing the most important factors rather than phantom technology problems. And these countries have reduced their traffic deaths by more than half -- far more progress than the U.S. has managed.

Yet the U.S. government continues to focus its attention on vehicles, which have an inconsequential effect compared to policies relating to speed, distraction, alcohol, drugs and belt use.

Why these misplaced priorities? In my view, it is due largely to the dominant role played by litigation in the U.S. -- a role without parallel anywhere else in the world.

After all, technological problems mean lawsuits. They generate billions of litigation dollars. Some of the loot is contributed to politicians who continue to mislead the public into believing that vehicle factors are important.

It has infected the consciousness of Americans with disastrous consequences.

I have presented professional traffic safety lectures in 30 of the 58 countries I have visited. When I mention traffic safety to people outside the U.S., they are likely to bring up young drivers, speeding, reckless driving, and belt wearing. Americans are more likely to mention vehicle factors, such as the current Toyota happening.

Such misinformation was liberally dispensed in last year's congressional inquiry into Toyota's problems. Yes, Toyota screwed up -- but this should not have been a matter of particular national note.

It was initially alleged that 19 deaths were associated with Toyota's gas pedal problem over the previous decade. (The 19 started to increase once the smell of money spread.)

But over the same decade, a total of 22,371 people were killed traveling in vehicles made by Toyota (based on analyzing 1999-2008 fatality data from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). Almost all of them were the result of driver behavior. Almost none had anything to do with the cars' performance.

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So what should the government's concern be? The 19 deaths, or the 419,000 deaths (22,371 of them in Toyotas) that occurred on the roads of the U.S. in the same decade?

Government's role should be to forcefully inform the public that it is their own driving and the driving of others that affects their risk in traffic. Misinforming drivers that vehicle factors are important encourages drivers to believe that there's nothing much they can do about it -- after all they don't make vehicles.

Such misinformation only increases the enormous toll of 100 deaths per day on our roads.

Leonard Evans is a member of the National Academy of Engineering. He is an internationally recognized traffic safety expert who spent 33 years with General Motors Research Laboratories and is author of "Traffic Safety."

Other op-eds by Leonard Evans on AOL News
Want Safer Football? Ditch the Helmet
The Lesson of Toyota's Recall
Congress' Deadly Fixation on Toyota
Auto Technology That Kills
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