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Report inconclusive on floor mat's role in fatal Toyota crash

Investigators say the mat may have trapped the accelerator but other factors, like electronic or mechanical problems, couldn't be ruled out in the collision that killed a CHP officer and three others.

December 06, 2009|By Ralph Vartabedian and Ken Bensinger

The high-speed crash of a Lexus ES 350 that killed an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer and his family Aug. 28 may have been caused by the car's accelerator pedal becoming trapped by a rubber floor mat, but a range of other possible electronic or mechanical problems could not be ruled out, investigators for the San Diego County Sheriff's Department have found.

The crash, which killed CHP Officer Mark Saylor, his wife, daughter and brother-in-law, has led to the recall of more than 4.2 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles to fix what federal safety regulators have called "a very dangerous problem" involving the amount of clearance between the gas pedal and the rubber floor mats.

But the inquiry leaves open a number of questions about the cause of the accident and the role floor mats have played in more than 1,000 reported acceleration events across the nation in the last eight years. The investigators' 61-page report also raises the possibility the Saylor crash was preventable.

An employee at Bob Baker Lexus in El Cajon, which lent the ES 350 to Saylor when he brought in his own Lexus for servicing, had been warned about the problem three days before the crash by another customer who had a sudden-acceleration problem in the same car, the report found.

Frank Bernard, a San Diego County resident, told investigators that the vehicle had accelerated to 80 to 85 mph when the gas pedal had become jammed by the floor mat, the report said. He recalled that he told a receptionist at the dealership about the occurrence, though whether that warning was passed on to others there was unclear.

The receptionist at first said she had no recollection of being alerted to the problem, but in a later interview at a coffee shop said she recalled such a warning. She said she passed it on to a "detailer" at the dealership, but he said he could not remember being told about it.

"The family has been struggling with the fact that they not only lost loved ones in the accident, but it was avoidable," said Timothy Pestotnik, an attorney representing families of Saylor and his wife, Cleofe Saylor, who released the accident report. "The car was put back on the road with our client after the problem had been reported to the dealership."

The Saylor family was on the way to their daughter's soccer activity, the report says, when witnesses on the 125 Freeway noticed the car having trouble, moving slowly on the shoulder and then accelerating to a "white blur" as it sped toward Mission Gorge Road in Santee.

When it reached the intersection, it rammed a Ford Explorer and went airborne into an embankment, spraying auto parts into a debris field 80 feet in diameter, the report said. Two occupants of the Ford were not badly hurt.

The report found that all the rubber floor mats in the ES 350 loaner were made for a Lexus RX 400, but did not say how or why the wrong mats were installed.

The document quoted Bob Baker Lexus Vice President David Ezratty as saying the dealership would not put the wrong mats in its loaners.

Dealership representatives could not be reached for comment on the report.

When Toyota Motors recalled 4.2 million vehicles in September, it said there was the potential for accelerator pedals becoming trapped by floor mats, not necessarily the wrong floor mats.

And in the key finding about the cause of the Saylor crash, the sheriff's report hedged its conclusion, saying, "There is an indication [the incorrect floor mat] may have caused a sudden acceleration event." Investigators cited two associated factors, the lack of a key that could readily turn off the engine and brakes that "failed" because of prolonged heavy braking.

But the report further hedged it findings, saying: "Due to the catastrophic damage . . . other avenues of unintended acceleration could not be explored. Beyond the all-weather floor mat, other and/or additional factors causing a sudden acceleration event (re: electrical, mechanical or computer generated) should not be ruled out."

The report noted that investigators were not able to extract key information from the car's "event data recorder," a black box that can record a vehicle's speed and other information in the seconds before a crash.

The document said the box would be given to Toyota technicians to see if they could access the data.

ralph.vartabedian

@latimes.com

ken.bensinger@latimes.com

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