It's not an easy calculation. Six years ago, Vioxx, a powerful anti-inflammatory, was withdrawn by the manufacturer because it was found to increase the risk of heart attack and stroke from 0.75 percent per year to 1.5 percent. The company was pilloried for not having owned up to this earlier, but some rheumatologists were furious that the drug was forced off the market at all. They had patients with crippling arthritis who had achieved a functioning life with Vioxx, for which they were quite willing to risk a long-shot cardiac complication. The public furor denied them the choice.
And don't imagine that we do not coldly calculate the price of a human life. In 1974, the speed limit was lowered to 55 mph to conserve oil. That also led to a dramatic drop in traffic fatalities -- approximately 3,000 lives every year. This didn't stop us, after the oil crisis, from raising the speed limit back to 65 and beyond -- knowing that thousands of Americans would die as a result.
The calculation was never explicit but it was nevertheless real. We were quite prepared to trade away a finite number of human lives for speed, and for the efficiency and convenience that come with it.
This is not to let Toyota off the hook simply because all products carry risk. Toyota executives have already admitted that they had underplayed the reports of sticking accelerators. They seem finally to have made a very serious, almost frantic, effort to correct what can be corrected -- the floor mat and sticky accelerator problem -- while continuing to investigate the more elusive possibility (never proved, perhaps never provable) of some additional electronic glitch.
But it is no disrespect to the memory of those killed, and the sorrow of those left behind, to simply admit that even the highest technology produced by the world's finest companies can be fallible and fatal, and that the intelligent response is not rage and retribution but sober remediation and recognition of the very high price we pay -- willingly pay -- for modernity with all its wondrous, dangerous bounty.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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