A radical look at auto safety

May 4, 2015, 6:30 PM UTC
Ford Pinto Safety Trial 1980
This is a picture of a 1973 Ford Pinto sedan prior to a crash test with a 1972 Chevrolet van, seen as evidence during the Ford Pinto trial in Winamac, Ind., Feb. 27, 1980. (AP Photo)
Photograph by AP

Safety defects are the bane of the auto industry. More than 60 million vehicles were recalled last year, double the previous annual record in 2004. General Motors (GM) , Toyota, and Honda in particular had to deal with the fallout from faulty ignition switches, unintended acceleration, and exploding airbags. GM alone spent $4.1 billion recalling nearly 27 million vehicles in 2014.

Automakers, as well as federal regulators, have been accused of moving too slowly in identifying patterns of defects and then in correcting them. Is there a better way? In the May 4 issue of The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell, the best-selling author of The Tipping Point and Blink, makes a strong case for an overhaul of the entire process. If his ideas catch hold, they could radically reshape the way we think about auto safety.

Auto engineers see the question of vehicle defects in an entirely different way than non-engineers. As Gladwell points out, “To the public, a car either is or isn’t faulty. To an engineer, imperfections and compromises are inevitable.” Thus a car like the 1970s Ford Pinto gets branded as unsafe, when, in fact, it was engineered no differently than other cars of the era (Vega, Corolla, VW Beetle), and had a similar safety record.

The Pinto became the symbol of careless engineering when it was involved in a publicized 1978 triple fatality after being rear-ended by a speeding 4,000-lb. van. No small car of that era could have survived such a crash and subsequent federal regulations to fix the gas tank problem made little difference. Gladwell asks: “Was the car broken? Or was it just somewhere on the gradient between unacceptable and high-performing?” He quotes a Ford engineer as saying, “You have to accept that, if you are building a product like a vehicle, people are going to get killed.”

If imperfections and compromises are inevitable, how can you make driving safer? Gladwell has three suggestions:

  • Stricter traffic enforcement. He cites a study in Oregon, where budget cuts have reduced the size of the highway patrol repeatedly since the 1970s. If the number of state police had merely been maintained at their 1979 level, Oregon would have experienced 2,302 fewer fatalities from 1979 to 2005.
  • Higher liquor prices. The U.S. federal excise tax on alcohol is between one-third and one-half of the rate in Europe. Yet a tax increase put in place in 1991, according to one economist, saved 6,500 lives in trauma-related accidents in just the first year.
  • Smarter statistical analysis. Gladwell figures that more people died in an average year in Oregon as a result of too few traffic police than died in Pinto fires, GM ignition-switch malfunctions, and Toyota sudden-acceleration incidents— combined!


Gladwell concludes that the variables that really matter in auto safety have to do with the driver, not the car. Some 10,000 people are dying annually from drunk driving or not wearing a seatbelt, and another 3,000 perish from distracted driving. The numbers give fresh credence to a saying coined 90 years ago: “The most dangerous part of driving is the nut behind the wheel.”