Safety Expert: Toyota Problems Could Distract from Serious Issues

The full extent of defects in Toyota accelerators, brakes, and other equipment may not be known for years, according to automotive safety expert John Graham, dean of the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

But the immediate risk, he said, is that Toyota's problems may cause regulators, elected officials, and the public to steer away from more effective safety-improvement strategies: reducing drinking and driving, increasing the use of seat belts and child safety restraints, and curbing distracted driving.

"If politicians allow the Toyota issues to dominate the government safety agenda, the more crucial safety challenges that need to be addressed are likely to be neglected," Graham said.

Toyota has recalled more than 7 million vehicles in recent months for problems that include sticking accelerator pedals on several models and braking problems on Prius hybrids.

Graham said the best way for Toyota to handle public concerns about safety is to be open about what company officials know and don't know, and what they are doing to address the problems. He said government regulators should examine the Toyota issue carefully, but fixing defects should not become the main focus of safety efforts.

"The history of the auto industry reveals that the public concern about vehicle defect cases is often far greater than is justified by the actual degree of risk," Graham said. "This is what we now realize about the Ford Pinto gas-tank concerns in the 1970s, the Ford 'park-to-reverse' issue in the 1980s, and the airbag-induced injury claims in the 1990s."

Graham said peer-reviewed studies have made the case that focusing on vehicle defects is an ineffective use of government resources when compared with strengthening standards for equipment that improves safety, such as side-impact airbags and technologies that reduce the likelihood of rollover.

"For every one death associated with vehicle defects, there are probably on the order of hundreds of deaths associated with preventable design issues and behavioral issues on the part of drivers," he said.

Graham, former administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, U.S. Office of Management and Budget, has published extensively on the costs and benefits of risk-reduction technologies. He is the author of the forthcoming "Bush on the Home Front: Domestic Policy Triumphs and Failures," from Indiana University Press.

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