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Runaway Toyota cases ignored

Safety investigators dismissed numerous reports of sudden acceleration, then said data were lacking.

November 08, 2009|Ralph Vartabedian and Ken Bensinger

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 Times review of federal records has found.

The crashes resulted in at least 19 deaths and scores of injuries over the last decade, records show. Federal regulators say that 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 last seven years. Toyota Motor Corp. recalled fewer than 85,000 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, which sharply narrowed 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 acceleration lasting more than a few seconds; and reports in which owners did not identify the possible causes of the problem.

NHTSA officials used the exclusions as part of their 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 then halted further investigation, saying it "found no data indicating the existence of a defect trend."

Meanwhile, fatal crashes involving Toyota vehicles continued to mount.

In a written statement, the NHTSA said its records show that a total of 15 people died in crashes related to possible sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles from the 2002 model year and newer, compared with 11 such deaths in vehicles made by all other automakers.

The Times located federal and other records of 19 fatalities involving Toyota and Lexus vehicles from the same model years in which sudden or unintended acceleration may have been a factor, 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 sudden-acceleration cases for Toyota 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% complained they had experienced sudden acceleration.

Most sudden accelerations did not result in a crash, but there were notable exceptions. Bulent Ezal, a retired engineer, plunged 70 feet off a Pismo Beach cliff into the Pacific Ocean surf. He was hospitalized with minor injuries, but his wife of 46 years was killed.

"By the time they pulled me out, the tide was about to cover the car," Ezal said.

He said his 2005 Camry had suddenly accelerated in a parking lot.

In its research, The Times examined thousands of federal defect investigation records, complaints filed with NHTSA by Toyota and Lexus owners, lawsuits against the company, and reports by independent safety experts and local police agencies.

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 ES 350 that accelerated to more than 100 mph and crashed in San Diego County.

Toyota has blamed the Saylor crash on an incorrectly installed floor mat that jammed the accelerator pedal. The company announced a recall of 3.8 million vehicles in September and is designing a fix aimed at preventing sudden acceleration caused by floor mats.

The recall affects the following Toyota models: the 2007-2010 Camry, the 2004-2009 Prius, the 2005-2010 Avalon, the 2005-2010 Tacoma and the 2007-2010 Tundra, as well as the 2007-2010 Lexus ES 350 and the 2006-2010 Lexus IS 250 and IS 350.

Last week, the 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," the agency said. "In the case of complaints about sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles NHTSA moved very quickly to respond to them."

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