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New details in crash that prompted Toyota recall

A federal report finds a possible flaw in the gas pedal design of a runaway Lexus that crashed in August, killing CHP Officer Mark Saylor and three family members and leading to a massive recall.

October 25, 2009|Ken Bensinger and Ralph Vartabedian

Federal highway safety inspectors have released new details of a fatal car crash that triggered Toyota Motor Corp.'s largest recall, including a finding that the Lexus ES 350 sedan involved had a gas pedal design that could increase the risk of its being obstructed by a floor mat.

Toyota has previously said that the floor mat was improperly installed and may have trapped the accelerator pedal, causing the vehicle to race down Highway 125 in suburban San Diego at more than 100 mph before crashing and bursting into flames, killing off-duty California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor and three members of his family.

The report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration draws no conclusions about the cause of the Aug. 28 accident, but discloses new details, including the fact that the brakes were heavily damaged. That would seem to confirm a frantic 911 call made by Saylor's brother-in-law from the speeding car, during which he said, "There's no brakes."

A Times review of NHTSA documents in a past investigation of Lexus vehicles showed that the agency had found that the Lexus ES braking system loses power-assist when the throttle is fully opened, increasing braking distance fivefold.

The new NHTSA report also indicated that the Lexus' accelerator pedal design may have contributed to the risk of floor mat entrapment.

"Beyond the main pivot, the lever is not hinged and has no means for relieving forces caused by interferences," investigators found.

Toyota has said that among the remedies it is considering in the current recall is an adjustment to the pedals or their design.

The report also notes that the lower edge of the accelerator pedal was "bonded" to the rubber floor mat, shown in a grainy color photograph. The photograph also shows damage to the area of the floor mat surrounding the accelerator pedal.

Saylor owned a different Lexus that was being serviced at Bob Baker Lexus in El Cajon, and was given the 2009 ES 350 as a loaner the day of the accident. Toyota has indicated that the dealership incorrectly installed the mats.

A Toyota spokesman had no immediate comment Saturday. Executives with Bob Baker Lexus could not be reached for comment.

Federal investigators found that the auto had rubber all-weather floor mats for a Lexus RX400h, which is a sport utility vehicle, and that they were unsecured by the vehicle's retaining clips.

Toyota had previously stated that the mats were for a different Lexus vehicle, but had not said which model.

The NHTSA report found that one of the two clips on the Saylor vehicles had pulled out of the carpeting and was lying under the floor mat. The other clip was still attached to the carpeting, but not hooked into the floor mat.

In addition, the vehicle's brake surfaces showed signs that they had been worn down through heavy braking against the full force of the 272-horsepower Lexus engine.

"Rotors were discolored and heated, had very rough surfaces, had substantial deposits of brake pad material, and showed signs of bright orange oxidation on the cooling fins consistent with endured braking," the report said.

NHTSA investigators also noted that instructions for operating the car's keyless ignition, which requires that the power button be pressed for three full seconds to turn off the engine while the car is moving, were "not indicated on the dashboard."

The San Diego County Sheriff's Department is leading the investigation of the crash and has not yet released a final report. The NHTSA report indicated that the Sheriff's Department had recovered an electronic data recorder from the wreck, but that "no attempts to retrieve data from the EDR have yet been made."

Sheriff's Lt. Julie Sutton said Saturday that the department has no comment on the NHTSA report, adding that it is not releasing any more information about the crash at this time.

Last month, Toyota announced the largest recall in its history, asking drivers of 3.8 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles to remove their floor mats until a permanent remedy is devised.

The recall affects the following Toyota models: the 2007 to 2010 Camry, 2005 to 2010 Avalon, the 2004 to 2009 Prius, the 2005 to 2010 Tacoma, and the 2007 to 2010 Tundra.

It also affects the following Lexus models: the 2007 to 2010 ES 350, and the 2006 to 2010 IS 250 and IS 350.

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ken.bensinger@latimes.com

ralph.vartabedian @latimes.com

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