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Safety probe of certain Lexus ES models is closed

Reports of sudden acceleration are unlikely to stem from a vehicle defect, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says. Toyota has blamed out-of-place floor mats for most such incidents.

October 28, 2009|Ralph Vartabedian and Ken Bensinger

Federal safety regulators have closed an inquiry into sudden-acceleration incidents involving certain Lexus ES models after concluding that a vehicle defect was unlikely.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's inquiry into the 2007 Lexus ES 350 and the 2002-03 Lexus ES 300 was triggered by a petition from Jeffrey A. Pepski of Plymouth, Minn.

Pepski said his 2007 Lexus ES 350 suddenly accelerated from 60 to 80 mph while he was driving home from work Feb. 3.

Pepski said his accelerator pedal became stuck and he could not lift it up with his right foot, while the car continued to accelerate.

He said he "depressed the brake as hard as I could using both feet" but managed only to slow the vehicle. He eventually shifted into neutral and shut the engine off.

Toyota said the incident was caused by an out-of-place floor mat, an explanation it has used in responding to most reports of sudden acceleration. The company also wrote to NHTSA officials, saying they should deny the petition.

After considering the case for seven months and interviewing Toyota executives, NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation said it decided to deny Pepski's petition for a formal investigation and issued a letter Tuesday outlining its response.

NHTSA officials said any additional investigation "is unlikely to result in a finding of a defect" and cited the agency's "limited resources" in deciding to close the case.

The denial letter, signed by Kathleen DeMeter, director of the defects office, was entered into an online investigation file Tuesday but then was removed later in the day without explanation.

DeMeter could not be reached for comment on why the file was removed. Normally, such letters are issued publicly at the same time they are published in the Federal Register, which has not yet carried the formal notice.

Since Pepski filed his request, Toyota has voluntarily recalled 3.8 million of its vehicles, after a horrific crash in San Diego involving a Lexus took the lives of a California Highway Patrol officer and his family.

Although the local accident investigation is pending, Toyota has told owners of seven Toyota and Lexus models to remove floor mats, which reportedly can jam accelerator pedals. The company says it is working on a broader solution to the problem.

Toyota's recall includes the 2007 to 2010 Camry, the 2005 to 2010 Avalon, the 2004 to 2009 Prius, the 2005 to 2010 Tacoma and the 2007 to 2010 Tundra. The Lexus models recalled are the 2007 to 2010 ES 350 and the 2006 to 2010 IS 250 and IS 350.

NHTSA's denial of the Pepski petition marks the fifth time the agency has denied a petition for a probe of Toyota products for sudden acceleration defects since about 2000.

The agency has not opened a formal evaluation related to the current recall by Toyota, though it has received written requests to conduct such an investigation.

--

ralph.vartabedian @latimes.com

ken.bensinger@latimes.com

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