Recalls In Mind, Should You Buy a Toyota Prius?

September 24, 2010

I've wanted a Toyota Prius, well... forever. However, now that we are ready to buy, my husband is deeply concerned about "that stuff about Toyotas not stopping." Your old "Toyotaphobia" article was helpful. Has anything changed that would justify his fear?

His fears are real. His fears are understandable. His fears are not justified.

News reports about Toyota unintended acceleration incidents always used the most dramatic and sad examples. The report I saw included the actual recording of the 911 call of a desperate man who could not stop his speeding Toyota. His helpless pleas suddenly turned silent. Then photos of the actual crash scene where that man was killed filled the screen. This kind of imagery is powerful, sensational and hard to shake off. It made the horror that the victim experienced feel tangible. It certainly made me think about the "what if" I or someone I loved were to face such a horrifying situation from behind the steering wheel of a flawed Toyota.

Traumatic events on television can become frozen in our mind. Yes, that horrific story still reverberates in my mind; but I know the truth and I have perspective. I would gladly own and drive a new Toyota Prius. It would not undermine my enjoyment of that car in the least. I would drive it without fear, much as I would fly to New York in spite of what happened on 9/11, or take Tylenol without fear in spite of what happened years ago when someone caused the tainted Tylenol scare.

My confidence is in large part reinforced by looking at the number of Toyotas involved in fatal accidents caused by unintended acceleration. During the decade starting January of 2000, there were a total of 35 deaths attributed to unintended acceleration. During the same decade, Toyota sold roughly 20.5 million vehicles in the U.S. That means the odds of dying from unintended acceleration is around 35-in-20.5 million. Therefore, I am no more fearful of being killed in a Toyota unintended acceleration incident than I am about the 1-in-1,000,000 chance of dying in a bathtub accident.

However, I also understand fear, and know that rational reflection on statistics cannot always serve to quickly relieve irrational fears.

Prior to 1975, any discussion about the odds of being killed by a shark would not have lasted long. As a kid who grew up close to the ocean, I never thought too much about a shark attack at the beach we would often visit. Growing up, I cannot recall any reason to ask what the odds were of my being killed by a shark (which someone says is a 1-in-11.5 million risk). A trip to the beach was pretty carefree, a great way to spend a summer's day. I have great memories of playing in the sand and jumping in the water as a child, as well as body surfing and general horse-play as a teenager. Fatality issues and statistics did not become relevant to me until I was 20 years old in 1975.

It was the summer of 1975 that I saw the movie Jaws. Things were shown that I never thought possible (which is what Spielberg is good at), but seeing it made the terror more plausible. From that point on, I would visit the beach with a reoriented imagination. My normal carefree attitude was gone. The possibility that a hungry, vicious and evil shark lurked just beneath the surface of the water was now on my mind.

My fear was real. My fear was understandable. My fear was unjustified.

It took quite a while, but I was able to get over my phobia. Growing older, the statistical improbability of a fatal shark attack became more meaningful. I also learned that the vicious and evil "great white" portrayed by Steven Spielberg was a gross misrepresentation of the true nature and habits of that creature.

I don't think that the Toyota Prius poses any serious danger from unintended acceleration. I sincerely hope that your husband will come around and allow you to enjoy the car you've longed for.

I would remind your husband that if he were to live life trying to avoid all of the improbable causes of death that were around a 35-in-20.5 million risk or greater, he would probably be paralyzed in fear of things he now takes for granted as "safe".

Personally, dwelling on the possibility of unintended acceleration, or any other improbable cause of death, would stop me from doing many things that I view as necessary, and rob me of many joys that make life worth living.


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