Things seem to be going steadily downhill for Toyota Motor ( TM) in the wake of congressional hearings into safety issues affecting its automobiles. Stories of Toyota cars suddenly accelerating and refusing to brake have become pervasive enough that, at Sunday's Oscars, hosts Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin joked that best director nominee James Cameron had sent a Toyota to ex-wife and rival director Kathryn Bigelow. Consumer confidence in Toyota's cars has been so badly shaken that the automaker has been reduced to running ads featuring a mother posing with her daughters, assuring viewers that she trusts Toyota vehicles to safely transport her family. Toyota isn't alone in grappling with safety issues. Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration came under fire for failing to properly oversee American Airlines' ( AMR) safety records, allegedly allowing the airline to defer hundreds of maintenance inspections. And if concerns about plane safety weren't enough, we recently learned that an air traffic controller had allowed his children to direct planes at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. Meanwhile, the Produce Safety Project, a study initiated by the Pew Charitable Trusts, called into question the safety of our nation's food supply, estimating that the total economic impact of food-borne illness across the United States is $152 billion annually. Even if the food we eat can be trusted, our tableware may be another matter. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recently recalled 127,000 children's tableware sets because they presented a choking hazard. Safety issues can become even more complex when the law gets involved. Starbucks ( SBUX) recently found itself in the middle of a metaphorical shooting match between gun control advocates and proponents of "open carry," the practice of carrying unconcealed firearms in public. Forty-three states allow open carry, some requiring permits, some not. Faced with the unenviable prospect of barring gun owners engaged in a lawful practice from their shops, Starbucks decided to allow handguns on its premises in open-carry states. The coffee chain has taken tremendous criticism for that policy, though, and it's probably only a matter of time before a Starbucks employee or customer gets injured as a result of Starbuck's deference to state legislatures on this issue.
Some businesses are inherently hazardous. Last month, Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed in front of a terrified audience by a large orca that was already associated with two human deaths. The whale is one of the park's best breeders, too valuable to euthanize but apparently too aggressive to safely train. In an unrelated but similar incident, the world mourned on the first day of the winter Olympics when Georgian luge racer Nodar Kumaritashvili plunged to his death. The Wall Street Journal reported a few days later that, to make the luge track a greater commercial success after the Olympics, a series of design decisions were made that left the track dangerously faster than any competitive track before. Although officials signed off on the track's speeds during 2008 trials, some later recanted, recommending that slower courses in the future. It's ridiculous to expect that no one will ever be injured by a product or piece of equipment. Even if companies take every possible precaution, customers and employees can demonstrate an uncanny ability to hurt themselves. (The presence on so many consumer goods of safety labels that state the absurdly obvious is proof of that. Why does anyone need to be told not to dump a hairdryer into a full bathtub?) Still, one wonders whether some risks are really worth their rewards. It can be fun to watch orcas jump through hoops, but aren't there other, less dangerous ways to entertain tourists? A faster luge track may be more profitable, but does it need to be so fast that it puts athletes' lives in jeopardy? And yes, it may be legal to carry a handgun into Starbucks, but is it really necessary? Some restaurants ban diners who show up in T-shirts and flip-flops. If it's acceptable to turn away customers for sartorial reasons, shouldn't it be okay to ask them to put their guns away for the safety and emotion well-being of employees and other patrons who just want to buy their coffee in peace? There are plenty of health and safety regulations, but they do little good unless companies satisfy them and go beyond if necessary to protect consumers and employees. Companies should conduct common sense safety checks without waiting for the government to prod them. (Surely, somebody could have determined whether a child's fork could be used without breaking apart in the mouth before distributing 127,000 of them in the market.)
And airlines should do their own maintenance inspections as a matter of course, whether the FAA oversees them or not. Products should be safe for ordinary use by consumers; it shouldn't take a trained test driver to safely handle a car. Not every risk can be identified, of course, and some risks are so big or unlikely that they're impractical to address. Cost-benefit analysis can be a legitimate part of a company's determination of how safe is safe enough, but an exclusive focus on the bottom line can blind a company to the long-term implications of a bad decision. Toyota has already taken considerable heat for an internal memorandum suggesting that the company negotiated a limited recall on its cars to save $10 million. Some Toyota drivers allege that the company stonewalled complaints, blaming driver error instead of fixing faulty cars. Even worse, Toyota now faces allegations by Rep. Edolphus Towns (D., N.Y.) that the company "deliberately withheld" evidence in lawsuits related to vehicle safety, exhibiting a "systematic disregard for the law." If it turns out that Toyota has intentionally concealed dangerous flaws in its vehicles, the company may never recover its good name. "Safety first" may not always be a practical business maxim. But if a product or practice proves to be too dangerous, no matter how profitable, fix or discontinue it before someone gets hurt.