Will this be another NHTSA White Wash that costs lives, Tom?
... Toyota had received more than 37,900 complaints concerning the ETCS, which have been installed in Toyota-brand vehicles sold in the United States since 1998....
How many complaints does it take for NHTSA to act?
Runaway Toyota cases ignored
Bulent Ezal said his Camry suddenly accelerated before it plunged off a Pismo Beach cliff in 2007, killing his wife. (Pismo Beach Police Department)
More than 1,000 Toyota and Lexus owners have reported since 2001 that their vehicles suddenly accelerated on their own, in many cases slamming into trees, parked cars and brick walls, among other obstacles, a Los Angeles Times review of federal records has found.
The crashes resulted in at least 19 deaths and scores of injuries, records show, which federal regulators say is far more than any other automaker has experienced.
Owner complaints helped trigger at least eight investigations into sudden acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the past seven years. Toyota recalled fewer than 100,000 vehicles in response to two of those probes, and the federal agency closed six other cases without finding a defect.
But those investigations systematically excluded or dismissed the majority of complaints by owners that their Toyota and Lexus vehicles had suddenly accelerated, sharply narrowing down the scope of the probes, the Times investigation revealed.
Federal officials eliminated broad categories of sudden acceleration complaints, including cases in which drivers said they were unable to stop runaway cars using their brakes, incidents of unintended accelerations that lasted longer than a few seconds, and reports in which owners failed to identify the possible causes of the problem.
The exclusions were used by NHTSA officials as a rationale to close at least five of the investigations without finding any defect, because — with fewer incidents to consider — the agency concluded there were not enough reported problems to warrant further inquiry. In a 2003 Lexus probe, for example, the agency threw out all but one of 37 customer complaints cited in a defect petition. It ultimately halted further investigation, saying it “found no data indicating the existence of a defect trend.”
Meanwhile, fatal crashes involving Toyota vehicles continued to mount, surpassing those of all other manufacturers combined.
In a written statement, NHTSA said its records show that since the 2002 model year, a total of 15 people died in crashes related to possible sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles, compared with 11 deaths in vehicles made by all other automakers.
The Times located federal and other records of 19 fatalities involving Toyota and Lexus vehicles in which sudden or unintended acceleration may have been a factor over the same period, as well as more than 1,000 reports by owners that their vehicles had suddenly accelerated. Independent safety expert Sean Kane, president of Safety Research and Strategies, said he has identified nearly 2,000 Toyota sudden acceleration cases for vehicles built since 2001.
Other experts say the numbers may be far higher, pointing to a 2007 NHTSA survey of 600 Lexus owners that found 10 percent complained they had experienced sudden acceleration.
While most sudden accelerations did not result in a crash, there were notable exceptions. Bulent Ezal, a retired engineer, plunged 70 feet off a Pismo Beach cliff into the Pacific Ocean surf, after he said his 2005 Camry suddenly accelerated in a parking lot. He was hospitalized with minor injuries, but his wife was killed.
In its research, the Times examined thousands of federal defect investigation records, complaints filed by Toyota and Lexus owners with NHTSA, and reports by independent safety experts, local police agencies and lawsuits against the company.
Toyota has been under a spotlight since Aug. 28, when off-duty California Highway Patrolman Mark Saylor and three members of his family died in a Lexus ES350 that accelerated to 120 miles per hour and crashed in San Diego County.
Toyota has blamed the Saylor crash on an incorrectly installed floor mat that jammed the accelerator pedal. In September, the company announced a recall of 3.8 million vehicles and is now designing a fix aimed at preventing sudden acceleration caused by floor mats.
The recall affects the 2007-10 model year Toyota Camry, the 2004-09 Toyota Prius, the 2005-10 Toyota Avalon, the 2005-10 Tacoma, the 2007-10 Toyota Tundra, the 2007-10 Lexus ES 350 and the 2006-10 Lexus IS 250 and IS 350.
Last week, NHTSA called the issue a “very dangerous problem” and said the remedy remains to be determined.
The agency declined a request for interviews but issued a statement defending its past actions, saying its officials have continuously monitored Toyota vehicles for potential defects and that many of the reports of sudden acceleration involved only momentary surges of engine power that did not result in any loss of vehicle control.
“NHTSA takes every allegation of safety problems seriously, and that is why we read every consumer complaint within one business day of its receipt,” an agency statement said. “In the case of complaints about sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles, NHTSA moved very quickly to respond to them.”
For its part, Toyota Motor Corp. defended its Toyota and Lexus vehicles and the validity of prior investigations.
“Six times in the past six years NHTSA has undertaken an exhaustive review of allegations of unintended acceleration on Toyota and Lexus vehicles, and six times the agency closed the investigation without finding any electronic engine control system malfunction to be the cause of unintended acceleration,” company spokesman Irv Miller said in a statement.
Whatever the cause, NHTSA’s database of complaints filed by Toyota and Lexus owners show repeated cases of motorists grappling with runaway cars.
— Jean Bookout awoke in an Oklahoma hospital a month after she said her 2005 Camry sped out of control on a freeway and then smashed into an embankment on an exit ramp, leaving behind long skid marks from attempts to stop the vehicle with her brakes and emergency brakes. Bookout suffered permanent memory loss, and her best friend died. “I did everything I could to stop the car,” she said this week.
— Nancy Bernstein, a vice president for a Long Beach, Calif., community garden and a former science teacher, said she was taken on an eight mile high speed ride by her 2007 Prius, while she was following her husband in a group bicycle tour in Wisconsin. She said her Prius accelerated from 45 mph to 75 mph on a two lane winding highway cluttered with 100 cyclists.
“I was sure I was going to kill someone on a bicycle or myself,” Bernstein recalled. “I stood on the brakes with both feet. All of a sudden, I see fire. I thought, sure, my brakes are on fire. I thought about maybe trying to sideswipe a tree to slow down.”
Eventually, she was able to stop at the bottom of a hill, using her brakes and her emergency brake. A local resident rushed out with a fire extinguisher.
— Dr. David. W. Smith, an emergency room physician from San Dimas, Calif., never received what he considered a satisfactory answer from Toyota about his Lexus GS 300.
Smith said he was driving with his cruise control in central California on Highway 99 in 2008, when suddenly the vehicle accelerated to 100 miles per hour without Smith ever touching the accelerator.
The brakes did not release the cruise control or slow down the vehicle, Smith recalled. Finally, he shifted into neutral and shut off the engine. It was the second time it had happened, yet a Lexus dealer reported that it was “unable to duplicate customer concern.”
“I am sure it is the cruise control,” Smith said. “I haven’t used it since.”
In reviewing consumer complaints during its investigations, NHTSA relied on established “positions” that defined how the agency viewed the causes of sudden acceleration.
One was that a braking system would always overcome an engine and stop a car. The decision was laid out in a March 2004 memorandum.
When asked to submit its own complaint data to NHTSA, Toyota eliminated reports claiming that sudden acceleration occurred over a long duration because it did not represent how a throttle would fail in these vehicles.
NHTSA officials acknowledged in a statement that the exclusions were made but defended the practice.
“While some vehicles may be excluded from the scope of an investigation into a specific defect allegation, all are continuously reviewed, along with other relevant information, in order to identify other emerging issues of concern,” the statement said.
A reduced pool of reports created the appearance that the problem was much smaller than the gross numbers of complaints suggested, thus lowering the imperative for a broader vehicle recall, critics say.
“NHTSA has ways of pigeon-holing reports, categorizing them as brake failure rather than sudden acceleration,” said attorney Edgar Heiskell of Charleston, W.V., who is suing Toyota for a fatal crash involving a runaway Camry in Flint, Mich. “By excluding these braking and long-duration events, they have taken 80 percent of the cases off the table.”
In 2004, NHTSA began a probe into a defect petition filed by Carol J. Mathews, a registered nurse who was then director of health services for the Montgomery County, Maryland, school system. Matthews reported that she had her foot on the brake of 2002 ES when it took off and hit a tree.
In its subsequent investigation, NHTSA and Toyota both winnowed down other reports of sudden acceleration involving 2002 and 2003 Lexus ES and Camry models. When it asked Toyota to disgorge all of the reports it knew about, the company eliminated an unknown number in five broad categories, including cases where drivers said they were unable to control a runaway engine by applying the brakes.
In closing the investigation, federal investigators said only 20 cases of sudden acceleration were considered relevant.But the Times examination of consumer complaints and a sampling of reports from Toyota dealers found more than 400 reports of sudden acceleration involving those models. And federal records show that NHTSA knew about 260 of those cases and another 114 cases identified by Toyota.
As for its position that brakes can always overcome a vehicle’s engine, the safety agency and Toyota now acknowledge that in fact a braking system cannot always counter a wide-open throttle, as is the case in sudden acceleration.
NHTSA began investigating the problem of sudden acceleration in the mid-1980s, after a flood of complaints about the Audi 5000s. One outgrowth of the subsequent investigation was the NHTSA view that acceleration events at high speed are a different issue than events at low speed.
In 2005, for example, Jordan Ziprin of Phoenix experienced a minor accident he blamed on sudden acceleration; he filed a defect petition with NTHSA that included nearly 1,200 owner complaints about Toyota vehicles. The automaker argued the majority should be eliminated because they dealt “with two completely different issues.”
When owners said the “vehicle unintentionally or suddenly ‘accelerated,’ ” Toyota claimed that represented a different issue than when they said “the vehicle ‘surged’ or ‘lurched.’ ” NHTSA ultimately went one step further, eliminating every single complaint, finding them to have “ambiguous significance.”
The agency also has thrown out evidence for other reasons. In 2008, NHTSA opened a probe of the Toyota Tacoma after a consumer found that the pickup had accumulated 32 times more sudden acceleration complaints than any other pickup on the market.
But Toyota at the time said the complaints stemmed from “media and Internet exposure,” rather than any defect. NHTSA closed the case without a finding after it whittled down a list of more than 450 complaints to 62.
“To this day I still can’t find evidence online of a flood of media exposure,” said William Kronholm of Helena, Mont. He requested the investigation after he experienced two acceleration events in his 2006 Tacoma. “They never dealt with the question I presented in any real way.”
NHTSA has declined to reconsider previous investigations, even in the face of new evidence.
In March, Jeffrey Pepski of Plymouth, Minn., formally requested that NHTSA reopen two closed investigations into Toyota and Lexus vehicles for the acceleration problem, arguing in part that 10 other motorists had experienced sudden acceleration that could not be explained by floor mats.
NHTSA looked at the 10 cases and tossed them out. The agency’s way of looking at them sharply contrasted with the original accounts by the drivers.
In one case, the driver of a 2007 Lexus ES350 reported the sedan accelerated into a building, bounced backward, struck another vehicle and ended up on top of a snow bank. But federal officials described the case as a “single incident of alleged engine surge while parking vehicle. No trouble found by dealer.”
NHTSA denied Pepski’s petition last week, arguing that further study was “not warranted.”
Times staff members Scott J. Wilson and Melissa Rohlin contributed to this report.
Toyota in the docket: acceleration troubles have long history for automakersWednesday, March 17, 2010