We understand why Toyota is recalling millions of cars and trucks built since 2004. The value of the Toyota brand, linked closely to the company’s reputation for reliability, is at stake. We are less certain why the Secretary of Transportation is exhorting consumers to stop driving models that have been recalled and bring them back to the dealers for repair.
For as odd as it may seem on first reflection, some recalls may do more harm than good. In an article in last summer’s Regulation magazine, Kevin McDonald pointed out that asking owners to make an extra trip to their car dealers imposes a variety of costs on society. Those trips, after all, expose both the owners and other drivers on the road to a bit more risk of accidents, add to traffic congestion and pollution, and, of course, increase total consumption of gasoline. The trips also cost time to the driver and hours of labor to the dealer – no small thing for time-pressed Americans.
In some cases, these costs may be outweighed by the benefits in terms of safety. McDonald notes, however, that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (the agency that oversees recalls) has never bothered to do the math.
Sticky accelerator pedals and floor mats that degrade driver control are potentially serious matters. Toyota should be free to implement a recall, and consumers should be free to decide whether they want to bring their cars back for retrofits. But government should exercise self-restraint in getting between owners and manufacturers. It makes sense for NHTSA to gather information about vehicle defects and to make it available to the public. However, before the agency uses its legal authority to force recalls or even advises owners to heed manufacturers’ requests, it ought to compare the likely societal benefits of the fix to the costs.
Maybe it makes sense from society’s perspective to fix the millions of Toyotas involved in the recall, and maybe it doesn’t. It would be nice to see the numbers.