By on March 15, 2010


The Atlantic’s Megan McArdle
, piggy-backing on analysis started by Overlawyered’s Ted Frank, tracked down all the available ages of reported incidents of unintended acceleration in Toyotas and graphed them. The results speak volumes, as does Frank’s assessment that:

These “electronic defects” apparently discriminate against the elderly, just as the sudden acceleration of Audis and GM autos did before them. (If computers are going to discriminate against anyone, they should be picking on the young, who are more likely to take up arms against the rise of the machines and future Terminators).

McArdle’s graph of incidents by location (parking, freeway, etc) after the jump.

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37 Comments on “What’s Wrong With This Picture: The Missing Variable? Edition...”


  • avatar
    educatordan

    “If computers are going to discriminate against anyone, they should be picking on the young, who are more likely to take up arms against the rise of the machines and future Terminators.”

    Holy crap I almost had my coffee come out my nose! I’m so glad my grandmother has stopped driving at age 72 and two hip operations. Her children are still driving her car, it’s a CUV and it’s easier for her to get in and out of for her doctors appointments that they drive her too. (OK so she’s got an Aztek, fully loaded, leather, On Star the whole nine yards, but she’s a GM/UAW widow so give her a break.)

  • avatar
    toxicroach

    Pilot error is always the leading cause of death.

  • avatar
    jaydez

    I can’t find the exact article, but i believe it was TTAC that pointed out the average age of Toyota buyers is somewhere around 55 years old. Knowing that bit of information, this chart becomes a little less shocking. The 50-80 year olds are the ones purchasing the most Toyotas where they are having a very tough time marketing to a younger audience (hence the failed Scion project). The 80+ demographic are people like my grandfather who either served in or were around to remember Pearl Harbor and WWII and wouldn’t be caught dead in anything Japanese.

    • 0 avatar
      Quentin

      In all fairness, my 51 year old father owns a 2005 Subaru Outback XT and a 2001 Subaru Impreza 2.5RS that he’s only driven a handful of times. My 25 year old and 21 year old brothers technically don’t own any cars. Huge difference between owner and primary driver.

      Toyota seems to be the go-to car for the middle class teenager around here.

      For the numbers to be really relevant, you’d have to show complaints per the number of Toyota drivers in each age segment.

    • 0 avatar
      niky

      Either that or they’re too old to drive.

    • 0 avatar
      johnthacker

      the average age of Toyota buyers is somewhere around 55 years old. Knowing that bit of information, this chart becomes a little less shocking.

      If the average age is 55, then this distribution is still skewing high.

      Incidentally, if the average age is 55, that means that the average Toyota buyer is in smack in the middle of the Baby Boom, which seems about right. You would still expect more 40-50 yr old incidents and fewer 70-80, though.

    • 0 avatar
      dperreno

      Average age of (new car) buyers is not relevant. Average age of DRIVERS is. Younger drivers tend to either drive used cars, or if new, the car is often owned by or was purchased by a parent.

  • avatar
    geozinger

    What SUA incidents with GM cars? Or are you referring to the issues they had in the 1960’s?

    By all statistics on this site GM has one of the least amounts of SUA incidents. Which is just plain weird.

    • 0 avatar
      geeber

      Another variable is how long has the owner driven that car, or that MAKE of car.

      GM has been much less successful in “conquesting” sales from other brands, particularly in the passenger car and small SUV segment. Toyota has been much more successful in that regard.

      The GM owners that I know tend to have driven GM cars for all of their lives. The older Toyota owners that I know have all switched from another domestic, usually a GM car or a Chrysler product. I wonder if that makes a difference.

  • avatar
    criminalenterprise

    This could very easily be explained by the overall owner demographics. Older drivers will have lowered reaction times to a runaway accelerator, turning a minor glitch into an ordeal in just moments. I would tend to conclude the parking incidents are likely driver error, but that leaves over half the events in play.

    What we really need to see is internal Toyota service department incident reports. Customers would have been getting dealers to write service tickets on many more occasions than they would have thought to file a complaint on NHTSA. Then we’ll be able to get a more useful sample size.

  • avatar
    Sandy A

    A similar set of data was presented by GM lawyers over a decade ago and was largely discredited. Insurance companies have studied this and have shown that older drivers are no more likely to cause accidents than younger drivers. They should know, they have an actual stake in the outcome.

    As someone pointed out already the data is biased because it does not factor in several variables including the number of drivers on the road. There are a lot more older drivers than younger drivers (which is why social security is going broke). The data looks very different if you use percentages.

    For example:

    # of incidents for X age group / # of drivers for X age group

    This data also doesn’t include the fact that older drivers are more likely to own a Camry or Lexus than younger drivers. [As was already mentioned above.]

    Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics…

    • 0 avatar
      MBella

      That’s not true. They have shown that the odds of older people getting into to an accident aren’t as high as say a teenager, but are higher than a middle aged person. This also includes the fact that old people don’t drive as often. This is the reason my parents’ policy is in my mother’s name, and not my father’s who’s age over 60 means higher rates.

    • 0 avatar
      johnthacker

      There are a lot more older drivers than younger drivers (which is why social security is going broke).

      The Baby Boomers are still the largest demographic, and the Baby Boomer are roughly 45-65 right now. That explanation of yours really doesn’t explain the jump at 70-80.

      Of course, there could be incidents from both driver error and electronic error, and the former would create the bias in the combined data even if the latter had no bias.

    • 0 avatar
      srogers

      As MBella says, older drivers don’t drive as often or as far.
      So even if there are more of them, they probably aren’t dominating the total miles driven.

      If they’re having all those UIAs between home and the grocery store and the bingo hall, that is significant.

  • avatar
    davejay

    So…

    #1: The number of incidents “in motion” is surprisingly high for pilot error, given that most of the better-known UA incidents of days past (including the Audi UA) were from rest;

    #2: As others have mentioned, this doesn’t take into account the age distribution of Toyota owners, which average higher;

    #3: As you age, you get less responsive and less physically capable, so less able to recover from an unanticipated event quickly. Couple that with people more likely to report if they’ve actually had an accident, and discarding the age distribution makes this data sensical — the older the driver, the less likely they’re able to recover from a UA event, with a bump for the youngest but also least experienced.

    I personally fall into the pilot error camp, but this data’s pretty much the opposite of a smoking gun.

  • avatar
    mtr2car1

    I’ve often wondered if there’s a correlation btw the average age of the Prius driver and “confusion” with the controls.

    My parents have been driving for 50 years and I still see them concentrate on what their doing with the push button start and the unique gear control. It’s obviously nothing like their “normal” car and nothing like they’ve ever used their (or for that matter – most driver’s) entire driving lives.

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    What is the average age of a Toyota driver?

    If we were talking about Mercury cars going out of control, would any credible auto journalist consider this information important?

    Toyota’s purchasers are not the lithe 30 year old of thirty years ago. They are these drivers!

  • avatar
    dmrdano

    Someone educate me. Having never owned a car with a totally electronic throttle pedal (rather than cable-actuated), does it feel different to the driver? Can that “feel” affect the way a person responds to an emergency? Having driven for 35 years, I think I might get used to the way a car feels and misinterpret something. Just a thought. Someone fill me in.

    I know many older drives who still pump their brakes in a skit rather than letting the anti-lock brake do it’s thing.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Denver

      The drive by wire pedals are designed as much as possible to feel like conventional pedals – there is a spring to mimic the throttle return spring and a degree of built in “stickiness” to mimic the friction that the cable provides (or else your foot would get tired constantly fighting the spring). The average person could not tell what kind of pedal they have without looking – chances are you’ve driven DBW pedals (on rental cars, etc.) and didn’t even know it.

    • 0 avatar
      dmrdano

      Jack,

      Thanks. I rent a few times a year, so I probably have, but always feel a little odd the first time in a different car, so I would have attributed it to that.

  • avatar
    Sandy A

    “That’s not true. They have shown that the odds of older people getting into to an accident aren’t as high as say a teenager, but are higher than a middle aged person. This also includes the fact that old people don’t drive as often. This is the reason my parents’ policy is in my mother’s name, and not my father’s who’s age over 60 means higher rates.”

    You may be right, but the data shown above indicates that teenagers have about the same incident rate as middle-aged drivers [Age: 30-50] which also raises doubts about this particular data set. That is all I was trying to point out.

    I was under the impression that all household drivers needed to be named on an insurance policy…

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    After many years of not being in a car with my father, I have been his passenger a few times in the last few years. He’s in his 80’s, and I was very surprised to see how impulsive his driving had become. He was not at all adverse to flooring his car. I wonder how much of the statistics skewed to older drivers is due to a behavior we’d expect more from younger drivers.

  • avatar
    Steven02

    Am I correct in assuming that this data only represents deaths? I mean age distribution of death from the NHTSA database of reported UA doesn’t exactly come across as evidence of anything. I am guessing that the survival rate of older people in accidents is smaller than that of younger people.

    But how come we don’t see this number with old age brands like Buick, Caddy, and others? Again, I am not going to say the problem is some electrical demon out there to kill old people, but this data doesn’t exactly proof that the problem is old drivers either because everyone should be seeing the problem then.

    It is interesting how many people have come forward to try to explain away this problem away. But, as someone who does a lot of troubleshooting of systems (mine have both software and hardware components, not auto related), you have to find out what is different about the problems that people see and why some people don’t see certain problems. The differences can be small and hard to find, but no one has been able to come up with a reason of why this problem seems to happen more to Toyotas (and not too far behind) Ford. Why isn’t it happening at the same rate as GM, Nissan, Honda, Chrysler, BMW, MB, etc etc? If look at what is different, it is point at the brand of the vehicle, and in some charts, it appears that particular Toyota’s are far more prone to have this type of problem than other makes. So, the question is what make (in this case) Toyota so different from the others?

    Old people drive cars from every brand. So unless someone can prove that a disproportionate number of older drivers are driving Toyotas and that older drivers are more likely to have this problem, this is all speculation which is trying to come off as evidence.

  • avatar
    Kendahl

    The distribution of incidents by driver age is meaningless unless you know and adjust for the number of drivers in each age group and the number of Toyotas they drive. Probably the best number to normalize against is the miles driven in Toyotas by each age group since it is a good measure of exposure.

    Another consideration is the distribution of models by age group. This is important if certain models are more susceptible than others to driver error or mechanical failure.

  • avatar
    Disaster

    Good points on statistics, all. Further, instead of just number of drivers, hours driving needs to be factored in. The more hours, the more likely an incident is to occur…if random. According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics the 25-54 year old age group drives the most miles. The over 65 age group drives dramatically less.

    http://www.bts.gov/publications/highlights_of_the_2001_national_household_travel_survey/html/table_a17.html

    Miles driver daily:

    All persons 15 and older 29.1
    Sex
    Male 37.6
    Female 21.2

    Age
    15-19 years 12.2
    20-24 years 28.9
    25-54 years 35.0
    55-64 years 29.7
    65 years and older 17.0

    Worker status
    Employed 35.5
    Not employed 16.0

  • avatar
    pgcooldad

    There were 10 incidents for drivers 70 and above and 25 below age 70.

    There were 16 incidents for drivers 60 and above and 19 below age 60.

    Clearly younger drivers with better reflexes and same driving ability are a majority so the problems is the vehicles themselves.

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Denver

      Remind me not to hire you as a statistician. Did you ever think that maybe the total # of drivers (and driver-miles)for the group 15 to 60 is much larger than the 60+ group?

      Did you also notice that except for the very inexperienced 16-21 group, almost every decade in age was associated with a greater # of accidents until you get to 80?

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      “…except for the very inexperienced 16-21 group, almost every decade in age was associated with a greater # of accidents until you get to 80?”

      More responsibility and time visavis exercising social responsibility and taking the time to report incidents to NHTSA? (The octagenarians probably indended to make the report, but forgot what they intended to do by the time they intended to do it … just kidding.)

    • 0 avatar
      pgcooldad

      I was bored so I thought I would throw those “findings” out there.

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    Incident/location is interesting – the majority are on the fly (in motion/entering and exiting freeway). I won’t consider rush hour traffic as that means almost a crawl in some places, 70+ while riding the bumper in other places.

    Clearly pedal misapplication can’t account for the lions share of incidents.

    It still needs to be correlated with vehicle make and model.

  • avatar
    porschespeed

    Old Lady #1: When my ex-husband passed away, the insurance company said his policy didn’t cover him.

    Old Lady #2: They didn’t have enough money for the funeral.

    Old Lady #3: It’s so hard nowadays, with all the gangs and rap music..

    Old Lady #1: What about the Toyotas?

    Old Lady #4: Oh, they’re everywhere!

    Old Lady #1: I don’t even know why the scientists make them.

    Old Lady #2: Darren and I have a policy with Old Glory Insurance, in case we’re attacked by Toyotas.

    Old Lady #1: An insurance policy with a Toyota plan? Certainly, I’m too old.

    Old Lady #2: Old Glory covers anyone over the age of 50 against Toyota attack, regardless of current health.

    [ cut to Sam Waterston, Compensated Endorser ]

    Sam Waterson: I’m Sam Waterston, of the popular TV series “Law & Order”. As a senior citizen, you’re probably aware of the threat Toyotas pose. Toyotas are everywhere, and they eat old people’s medicine for fuel. Well, now there’s a company that offers coverage against the unfortunate event of Toyota attack, with Old Glory Insurance. Old Glory will cover you with no health check-up or age consideration. [ SUPER: Limitied Benefits First Two Years ] You need to feel safe. And that’s harder and harder to do nowadays, because Toyotas may strike at any time.

    And when they grab you with those metal claws, you can’t break free.. because they’re made of metal, and Toyotas are strong. Now, for only $4 a month, you can achieve peace of mind in a world full of grime and Toyotas, with Old Glory Insurance. So, don’t cower under your afghan any longer. Make a choice. [ SUPER: “WARNING: Persons denying the existence of Toyotas may be Toyodas themselves. ] Old Glory Insurance. For when the metal ones decide to come for you – and they will.

  • avatar
    LectroByte

    Hope I die before I get old…

    LOL. Wasn’t there some other thread on here very recently about some professor and the Audi 5000 debacle which amounted to “user error”?

    Anyway, I’ve experienced runaway throttle in 2 vehicles, once in a friend’s Duster 340 with a bad aftermarket carb install with an unsafe throttle return spring setup back in the good old days (late 1970s), and once in my long-term Volvo 850 with a sticky throttle body. The Volvo was admittedly way less dramatic — the engine wanted to idle at 2200 rpm or so, but I survived them both by use of the the neutral gear. The Duster engine impressed me by not blowing up. No tach, but it was screaming.

  • avatar
    fgbrault

    It could be that older people are simply more likely to complain, until 80 when it just takes too much effort to do so. :)

  • avatar
    don1967

    This missing variable in this story is “sufficient sample size”. But it does a good job of engaging younger readers, which I suspect is the whole point.

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