Chris Woodyard, USA TODAY 9:17 p.m. EDT September 11, 2014
A Rhode Island man is taking an unusual — and high profile — approach in trying to bring attention to his wife's 2010 Toyota Corolla that he says has a dangerous habit of accelerating on its own.
He's not only taking his case to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but to the lawyer who was designated to be the "independent monitor" as part of Toyota's deferred prosecution agreement with the government over its handling of unintended-acceleration claims.
In letters dated Thursday, Robert Ruginis of Bristol, R.I., alleges Toyota may have broken terms of its agreement by "concealing a safety issue and making misleading statements." He enlisted the help of Sean Kane, a well-known auto-safety expert, who rounded up more than 150 complaints from NHTSA's files that appear to relate to similar problems in Toyotas.
The cases stand out because most involve allegations of unintended acceleration during braking or at slow speeds, not the fear of high-speed runaway cars that were at the heart of the scandal that enveloped Toyota starting in 2009. Toyota was fined $1.2 billion earlier this year. It recalled 8.1 million cars, but says no cause was ever found except floor mats that can trap acceleration pedals and drivers who pushed the accelerator when they thought they were pushing the brake.
Ruginis, in an interview, says the car had the problem almost immediately after it was bought in
2010. At low speeds, the engine accelerated when she stepped on the brake. He says they took the car to the dealer twice to complain about the problems. In both cases, they were told that they couldn't find a problem, that it was most likely shifting in the transmission.
Then, this past June, she had a minor accident. Ruginis' wife was making a right turn with her foot on the brake when the car surged forward, striking an unoccupied, parked Jeep, he says.
He says he contacted Toyota for an inspection of the Event Data Recorder, or EDR. Ruginis, a computer engineering consultant, says the readout validated that his wife's foot had been on the brake and that the car accelerated.
Reached for comment, Toyota says in a statement it was the driver's fault for depressing the brake pedal too late to avoid an accident.
"The vehicle's Event Data Recorder (EDR) conclusively demonstrates that the brake pedal was not depressed until less than 0.8 of a second before impact," the statement reads. "Toyota also thoroughly inspected and test drove Mrs. Ruginis' vehicle, which revealed no issues, and was unable to duplicate the phenomenon described. This data supports our conclusion that this was not a sudden unintended acceleration event but a collision that resulted from late braking, which is not unique to drivers of Toyota vehicles."
Kane, of Safety Research & Strategies, says NHTSA also reviewed the data. NHTSA issued a statement saying it will review Ruginis' letter.
But Kane, in an e-mail, asks, "How does Toyota explain the vehicle and engine speeding up when she is braking — late or not?" Even if the accelerator and brake were pressed at the same time, he says the outcome is hard to explain away without unintended acceleration as a factor.
Meanwhile, some of the briefs of reports culled by Kane from NHTSA's files include:
•"The contact was driving 20 miles per hour when the engine exhibited an unusual increase in RPMs. The contact stated that when depressing the brakes, the RPMs would either decrease or increase rapidly. The vehicle was taken to the dealer and the contact was informed that the RPMs were operating normally."
•"The contact stated that while turning into a parking lot with his foot on the brake, all of a sudden the vehicle accelerated on its own. ... The vehicle barely missed striking a pedestrian and then crashed into a convenience store wall."
•"The contact owns a 2006 Toyota Corolla. The contact applied the brakes, the vehicle abnormally accelerated and crashed into a vehicle in front of him."
As for Ruginis, he still has the Corolla. He says he's stuck: His wife is afraid to drive it, and he doesn't want to sell it knowing it could have a problem.
In his letters, Ruginis asks NHTSA to investigate the issue further. Separately, he asks New York attorney David Kelley, the independent monitor, to assess whether Toyota's statement regarding car safety are accurate, at least in his case.
"Something is wrong here," he says.