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Toyota faces new reports of sudden-acceleration deaths

Complaints citing the defect in at least 13 fatalities have poured in to federal regulators since recalls were first announced, bringing the total to 34.

February 15, 2010|By Ken Bensinger and Ralph Vartabedian
  • Erick Garcia demonstrates procedures for shortening a gas pedal at Toyota of Hollywood. Toyota has issued about 10 million recall notices.
Erick Garcia demonstrates procedures for shortening a gas pedal at Toyota… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)

At least 34 people have died in accidents involving Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles that allegedly accelerated out of control in the past decade, federal safety regulators said Monday, reflecting a sharp jump in the number of motorist complaints being filed in the three weeks since the automaker announced its latest recalls.

The new count from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration includes 13 fatalities reported since Jan. 27, the day after Toyota ordered a sales and production halt of eight models in the U.S. to fix gas pedals that it said can stick and cause unintended acceleration.

An analysis of the data by The Times shows that all but one of the deaths reported to NHTSA by motorists in 2010 actually occurred in prior years -- as far back as 1992 -- suggesting that recent public attention to the issue spurred people to file complaints regarding past incidents. Most of the incidents occurred between 2003 and 2009.

According to accounts filed with NHTSA, Toyota and Lexus vehicles suddenly raced forward, smashing into other cars, buildings and pedestrians.

In addition to the fatalities, federal regulators said 22 people reported injuries from unintended acceleration accidents involving Toyota vehicles, which ranged from cuts and bruises to a woman left in a coma.

The Times first drew attention to the unusually high number of deaths attributed to sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles Nov. 8, when it reported that the 19 fatalities linked to the problem since 2001 was greater than the total for all other automakers combined.

The rise in new complaints did not surprise federal highway safety officials, given the widespread news coverage that accompanied Toyota's decision to halt sales and production to address the gas pedal problem.

"It is normal for NHTSA to receive an increase in consumer complaints after a recall is announced and the public learns of a safety defect," said Olivia Alair, a spokeswoman for the agency. "NHTSA takes every complaint seriously and reviews each one carefully. The agency is quickly gathering more data on all of these additional complaints to help guide our examination of sudden acceleration . . . as well as other safety issues."

The agency generally does not seek to prove or disprove whether sudden acceleration occurred in the accidents, instead using the database of complaints to help identify potential defect trends. The Associated Press first reported the rise in the fatality count Monday.

"We take all customer reports seriously," Toyota said in a statement released Monday. "That's why we are taking steps to implement more stringent quality controls, investigate customer complaints more aggressively, keep open lines of communication with safety agencies and respond more quickly to safety issues we identify."

The automaker has resumed sales and production of the eight models, and its dealers are in the process of installing shims on gas pedals to correct what it calls a defect that could make them stick.

More trouble

Nonetheless, the jump in reported fatalities in its vehicles marks another troubling development for Toyota, which has been furiously attempting to reassure the public about its commitment to safety in the wake of the recent recalls.

And many experts expect the drumbeat of bad news to continue as House and Senate committees prepare for hearings in coming weeks.

Noting the increased fatality total, Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, said federal safety regulators were still finding only the tip of the iceberg.

"We are going to go over 100 without a doubt," Ditlow said. "The only question is what is the true number. So many fatalities don't get attributed to sudden acceleration, especially as you go further back in time before people were paying attention to Toyota."

The company has issued 10 million recall notices on three continents in recent months, with 2 million vehicles subject to more than one recall.

The largest recall, announced last fall, focuses on floor mats that the automaker said can entrap the accelerator pedal. The second recall addresses gas pedals that Toyota said can stick. And last week, Toyota recalled nearly 500,000 of its hybrid vehicles, including the 2010 Prius, because of a brake problem caused by faulty computer software.

This month, both Congress and NHTSA have said they are looking into whether electronic throttle control, which is standard equipment on all Toyota and Lexus vehicles, could play a role in sudden acceleration.

Toyota officials have denied that possibility, pointing to internal and external testing, as well as eight federal investigations, none of which found a throttle defect.

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