Putting the Toyota recall in context

Toyota is recalling millions of cars–justifiably–but can we take a minute to look at some context, here? The Los Angeles Times reports that sudden acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles have been blamed in 19 deaths and 815 crashes since 1999. Yes, it’s alarming to think that one’s Camry might accelerate unexpectedly, or that my Prius might be slow to slow me down because of a brake defect. I understand the worry, and my heart goes out to those who lost family members because of Toyota’s inattention to product safety. So, I’m not saying that Toyota shouldn’t be taken to task for the design, manufacturing and quality control flaws that have engendered this corporate crisis for the company.

But statistics published by Mothers Against Drunk Driving also say that 11,000+ people were killed in 2008 by either their own or someone else’s drunk driving. That’s a really alarming figure. But, gee, I don’t see anyone recalling all the beer cans and liquor bottles that contribute to that statistic. And while Congress is all a-tizzy over Toyota, and although there have been hearings on underage drinking, I’m not aware of any recent Congressional inquiries into the role that alcohol and beer producers and marketers play in the drunk driving massacre that takes place every year in America.

Annual statistics for gun-related deaths are equally alarming. Each year in the U.S., more than 30,000 deaths are attributable to guns. In my book, that’s mass murder. So, does Congress call for a recall of guns or rifles? Of course not. We can’t even get Congress to renew the ban on assault weapons. And these deaths aren’t caused by design flaws–they’re caused by using the product as directed.

Toyota, at least, is attempting to do the right thing, by fixing new cars currently on their sales lots and recalling the affected millions that are already on the road–even if they’re late in doing so. But, in light of the statistics, why are we not equally outraged at the gun manufacturers and marketers? In 2003, I wrote a letter to the editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, urging Missouri voters to reject a concealed-carry gun law. The only response I received was a handwritten, anonymous, threatening letter that was hand-deposited in my mailbox without a stamp or return address. [The concealed-carry initiative failed, but the Missouri legislature and the Missouri Supreme Court found a way around it. ]

Nor does there seem to be any point in “recalling” alcohol. Our culture loves its beer, wine and liquor too much for that. We expect alcohol at social events, wink at binge drinking and joke about drunk driving. Realistically, the only small step that I can envision is a European-like crackdown on drunk driving, in which first offenders lose their licenses and go to jail.

The one hopeful note–and it’s a big one–in my fantasy-recall scenario is cigarettes. Of course, the product itself has not been recalled. But the culture shift in America, which began with the Surgeon General’s Report in 1964,  has been heartening. The lesson from America’s move away from smoking is that, as a culture, we are capable of change. My question is: were we different in the 1960s and 1970s, more willing to listen to knowledgeable health authorities and distinguish between facts and fiction? Did we have more political will back then, to buck the manufacturers and lobbyists, and to act in the best interest of the greater society?

In today’s culture and political environment, I’m fairly certain that recalls of America’s current, favorite death-inducing products probably are not going to happen. I’m simply asking that, as Toyota takes the consumer and media hit, we stand back for just a minute or too and at least contemplate the bigger picture.