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'Like a car on a slingshot'

At least 56 people have died in Toyota accidents in which sudden acceleration has been alleged.

February 28, 2010|By Stuart Pfeifer, Carol J. Williams and Robert Faturechi

One car barreled through a stop sign, struck a tree and landed upside down in a Texas lake, drowning four people. Another tore across an Indiana street and crashed into a jewelry store. A third raced at an estimated 100 mph on a San Bernardino County street before striking a telephone pole, killing a restaurant owner.

At least 56 people have died in U.S. traffic accidents in which sudden unintended acceleration of Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles has been alleged, according to a Times review of public records and interviews with authorities.

Most died while doing the mundane: returning to work after lunch, shopping, driving to the bank to make a deposit. The deaths occurred in big cities and small towns throughout the U.S.: Los Angeles; Tucson; Auburn, N.Y.; Marietta, Ga. The stories are told in court filings, federal accident complaints and police reports.

In the last decade, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received complaints of 34 fatalities related to sudden acceleration of Toyota vehicles, far more than for any other automaker. At least 22 additional deaths related to Toyota acceleration problems have been alleged in lawsuits and police reports.

The NHTSA database does not determine whether the complaints are valid, and none of the allegations have been proved in court. Still, the increase in the number of people who publicly blame Toyota vehicles for deaths and injuries comes at a difficult time for the world's largest automaker, which in recent months has issued nearly 10 million safety recall notices on vehicles worldwide.

Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons declined to comment for this report, saying the company does not discuss cases in which litigation has been, or may be, filed. The company has said it is confident that all models with potentially sticking pedals have been identified and that the recalls will address all problems.

In the last week, Toyota has become the focus of a U.S. criminal investigation related to its handling of safety issues; its president apologized before a congressional committee; and an internal memo was released in which Toyota executives boasted about saving money by averting recalls.

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