Toyota accused of 'not being frank' on problem
Lawyers say that automaker hid dangers of pedals
BY JUSTIN HYDE
FREE PRESS WASHINGTON STAFF
WASHINGTON -- When owners of Lexus sedans began reporting harrowing crashes involving stuck accelerator pedals in early 2007, Toyota told U.S. safety regulators there was no safety problem with its floor mats -- but it would send owners an orange warning sticker just to be sure.
The flaw has since been linked to at least 12 deaths, and last week, Toyota expanded its recall over floor mats to 5.3 million vehicles. As with a separate recall of 2.3 million cars and trucks for sticky pedals that also could cause sudden acceleration, the automaker downplayed early warnings of both problems.
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A Free Press review of documents from nine U.S. investigations since 2003 into sudden acceleration complaints show Toyota repeatedly ruled out many owner complaints, dismissed several concerns as posing no danger and modified models in production without offering similar changes to vehicles already on the road. Not until the 2007 floor mat investigation did any of the complaints lead to a recall.
Safety advocates and attorneys for owners suing over sudden acceleration say Toyota has simply stonewalled.
"I think Toyota is still scrambling to find the root causes of all the sudden acceleration that's been reported to them," said Don Slavik, a Milwaukee attorney representing a California man whose wife died in a crash off a cliff in their 2005 Toyota Camry that he blames on sudden acceleration.
The automaker has defended its actions, saying defects weren't found in most probes, that it fully cooperated with regulators and did not try to minimize safety concerns.
But Toyota also said it continuously reviews data for signs of safety defects, and would look back over prior complaints.
"We never truly close an investigation," said Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons.
Toyota had to be pressured
With its decision to recall vehicles for faulty gas pedals, Toyota reversed calls it made in 2007 and 2008 that the same pedals weren't a safety threat in response to consumer complaints in the United States and Europe.
The Japanese automaker made several similar decisions in earlier investigations involving sudden acceleration, and had to be pressured by federal regulators into a recall of floor mats that could trap gas pedals. That recall has grown to cover 5.4 million vehicles.
Sean Kane, a safety researcher who works with attorneys pursuing cases against Toyota, said Friday that he had found 19 deaths and 341 injuries stemming from 815 separate crashes involving Toyotas and sudden acceleration.
"This company is not being frank about the causes of sudden acceleration," Kane said. "We need to get down to the cause, and get it resolved quickly."
Automakers launch most safety recalls on their own, without prodding from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. NHTSA keeps watch on consumer complaints it receives along with accident data, but has to rely on the companies for the data needed in safety investigations, which the automakers often try to interpret to their benefit. The Free Press reported last week that in 2003, Toyota hired a former NHTSA investigator to handle relations with the agency.
The agency typically gets a fairly small number of sudden-acceleration complaints annually, but in recent years, Toyota has received far more than other automakers. Over the past 10 years, NHTSA had launched more investigations into sudden acceleration in Toyotas than all other automakers combined.
Hundreds of complaints
Since the 1990s, NHTSA had concluded that most sudden acceleration complaints were caused by drivers mistakenly hitting the gas pedal instead of the brake. When a Massachusetts man asked in April 2003 for an investigation of 1997-2000 model Lexus sedans, citing 271 complaints of unintended acceleration, the agency rejected his request
On Jan. 22, 2004, an elderly Las Vegas couple died after the 2002 Camry they were driving sped off the fourth floor of a parking deck at the Golden Nugget casino. Their son later told NHTSA that witnesses saw the car stop, then accelerate off the deck.
In February 2004, a nurse from Maryland asked the agency to review the 2002 and 2003 Lexus ES350 sedans, saying her throttle had malfunctioned several times and led to one crash. A month later, NHTSA launched a wider investigation into the electronic throttles on nearly 1 million Lexus and Toyota sedans, citing more than 100 complaints.
From the start, Toyota pushed NHTSA to narrowly define the problem as short bursts where the engine surged to "something less than a wide-open throttle." It compared many of the complaints to the prior sudden acceleration cases that NHTSA had deemed driver error. Toyota also said the computer could not open the throttle without the accelerator pedal being pressed, and said even if built-in safety checks failed, stepping on the brakes would stop the car.
But the company did reveal that it was conducting a "customer satisfaction campaign" to replace motors controlling the throttle, which could fail and send vehicles into a "limp home" mode. Such campaigns are typically made available to only owners who suffer the problem. It also admitted it bought back two vehicles from owners who had complained of repeated sudden-acceleration events.
After four and a half months, NHTSA closed its investigation, saying it could find no evidence of a defect and no trends in warranty and repair data suggesting faulty electric parts. Since then, no NHTSA investigation has found a defect in Toyota's electronic throttle controls.
Despite the findings, owners kept asking the agency for another look.
Three times -- in 2005, 2006 and 2008 -- Toyota customers asked NHTSA to investigate uncontrolled acceleration in their vehicles stemming from electronic throttle controls. Despite hundreds of complaints, NHTSA found no evidence of a defect in any of the cases. In all cases, Toyota provided data it said showed no evidence of defects, and in the 2008 look into Tacoma pickups, Toyota contended many of the complaints were "inspired by publicity."
Jordan Ziprin, a retired Phoenix attorney who filed the 2006 request, said the new recalls were evidence that Toyota was hiding its problems with electronic engine controls.
"It's just a matter of time before they get to that issue, which is going to be very, very expensive for Toyota," he said.
NHTSA officials declined to comment.
Toyota did find some problems that needed fixing -- just like the pedals in 2007 and 2008.
During the 2006 investigation, Toyota discovered corrosion inside some throttles on Camry sedans and changed the part in production. But it did not make the change available to vehicles on the road and minimized the change to NHTSA, saying it would only happen "under certain circumstances, such as driving through a flooded road, in the heavy rain, or a hurricane."
Fixing part of the problem
But with the investigations of Lexus floor mats that began in March 2007, the company's actions were not sufficient to satisfy NHTSA. After reports of seven injuries from vehicles with pedals trapped by all-season floor mats, Toyota once again said there was no safety issue. It did say it would mail owners and dealers with instructions for how to install the floor mats, along with an orange sticker and doubling the height of a warning embossed on the surface to 10 millimeters.
"There is no possibility of the pedal interference with the all-weather floor mat if it's placed properly and secured," the automaker told regulators in April 2007.
But by August, federal regulators had found 12 deaths linked to the mats. A survey of 600 Lexus owners found 59 reporting sudden or unexpected acceleration. NHTSA also found evidence that in some crashes, owners were standing on the brakes yet unable to stop their vehicles. Toyota issued its first recall in September 2007 covering 55,000 vehicles.
NHTSA began testing some of Toyota's claims about the problem. It found that the brakes in the Lexus ES350 sedan could stop an engine at wide-open throttle -- but only after 1,000 feet, and only with five times the amount of pressure usually needed to bring the car to a halt.
Regulators were also worried about confusion from the start-stop buttons that Toyota had installed in many models instead of keys. The automaker told regulators that the engine could be shut off in an emergency if drivers held the button for three seconds.
But early in 2009, as part of another customer petition, Toyota disclosed that its owner's manuals incorrectly stated that the start-stop buttons would turn the vehicle off only if the transmission was in park. Toyota said it would change manuals for new models, but once again did not offer to update those already on the road.
And despite a rising tally of injuries and crashes, including the death of a California Highway Patrol officer and three family members, it would take another two years for Toyota to expand the floor mat recall to several other models. When it did in September of last year, it denied at first that the issue met the legal standard for a defect.
Under pressure from NHTSA officials, Toyota relented and dubbed the move a recall. In November, it agreed to make software changes that would shut down a gas pedal if the brakes were applied at the same time, along with reshaping the pedals to avoid contact. Those fixes aren't expected to be available until April.
Toyota also will buy back all all-season floor mats that first launched the investigation, telling regulators that "Toyota appreciates this opportunity to cooperate with NHTSA."
Toyota President Akio Toyoda broke his silence over the recalls Friday on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, with an apology to owners.
"We're extremely sorry to have made customers uneasy," Toyoda told Japan broadcaster NHK. "We plan to establish the facts and give an explanation that will restore confidence as soon as possible."
Contact JUSTIN HYDE: 202-906-8204 or email@example.com