Steve Chapman

Last week, facing a congressional committee acutely dissatisfied with his company's safety record, the head of Toyota, Akio Toyoda, was asked what he would tell President Barack Obama if he had the chance. His surprising reply: "Toyota cars are safe."

It was surprising because more than 8 million Toyotas have been recalled for safety flaws that have caused dozens of deaths. It was even more surprising because he was right.

No one denies that these defects have caused some horrifying accidents that were preventable. Still, worrying that you are going to be killed while driving a Toyota that suddenly zooms out of control on the road is like worrying that you are going to die of a spider bite while climbing a ladder onto your roof. Though either is possible, the chief dangers are the ones you take for granted. Driving is a hazardous activity, but rarely because of unsafe cars.

During the last decade, the sudden acceleration of Toyota vehicles has been blamed for 34 fatalities. In that same period, more than 21,000 other people died in accidents while riding in Toyotas. Your own lapses, and those of other drivers, are far riskier than the flaws found in your automobile.

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Chuck Hurley, CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, agrees on the pressing need for Toyota to repair its troubled cars. But he estimates that more than 80 percent of traffic deaths are the result of excessive speed, drunken driving or unused seat belts. Last year alone, more than 11,000 Americans died in accidents involving drunk drivers. By contrast, only about 2 percent of wrecks stem from vehicle defects.

Yet Congress is not holding hearings to ask Toyoda why his company sells cars that can travel well above the speed limit, with engines that start even if the operator is too drunk to spell "key." It would rather worry about freakish risks inflicted on us than common ones within the control of individual motorists.

The current sentiment on Capitol Hill is that carmakers cannot be trusted with our well-being and therefore stern government action is in order. In fact, safety is a big selling point in the auto marketplace -- which happens to be one reason Toyota has sold so many cars.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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