Steve Chapman

No vehicle is flawless, and a vehicle that accelerates for no reason poses an unacceptable danger. But there's no reason to single out Toyota for congressional histrionics. In the latest analysis of driver fatality rates in different vehicles by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Toyota vehicles do not turn out to be the four-wheeled caskets Congress imagines. In fact, they consistently rank better than average.

The Matrix, for example, has the best record among station wagons, with a death rate less than half of that of the worst vehicle in its class. The 4Runner and Highlander finished first and second among midsize SUVs. The popular Camry and Corolla get high marks for crash-worthiness.

When it comes to defects, the company is hardly unique. Over the past five years, The Wall Street Journal reports, the federal government got more complaints from owners of Fords than owners of Toyotas. Out of 20 carmakers, says, Toyota is fourth best in the number of complaints per vehicle sold. But none of the others is being used as a piñata.

A more expansive government role is one of those answers that is neat, simple and wrong. "There are 250 million vehicles with 3,000 parts apiece," says Hurley. It's safe to assume the government couldn't police them all, even if it chose to do nothing else.

Fortunately, it doesn't have to do that in order for consumers to be protected. A carmaker's need to attract buyers is a far more powerful force for safety. As Yoshimi Inaba, head of North American operations, told Congress, "Nothing costs Toyota more than the loss of customer trust in our vehicles." Another reliable motivator is the urgent desire not to pay millions of dollars in damages, as Toyota is likely to do once the courts have had their say.

So it is likely to make its vehicles safer than before -- which doesn't mean your morning commute will necessarily be less fraught with peril. Angry members of Congress would like to blame highway carnage on self-interested auto executives. They forget that as a rule, cars don't kill people. Drivers do.

Steve Chapman

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

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