NHTSA won’t probe into Toyota unintended acceleration

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Friday it will not open a formal investigation into unintended acceleration claims in Lexus and Toyota vehicles.

The denial is the second time this year the safety agency has refused to open a probe into unintended acceleration.

The petition filed by a California man was based on his interpretation of Event Data Recorder data from a crash his wife experienced in a 2009 Lexus ES350 vehicle and from two other crashes involving a 2010 Toyota Corolla and a 2009 Toyota Camry. NHTSA found that the three crashes were likely the result of using the accelerator — rather than the brake pedal — rather than sudden unintended acceleration.

"The petitioner's allegations regarding the three crashes are based upon several misconceptions about the manner in which the EDR samples and records pre-crash data in the ES350, Corolla and Camry vehicles. In each of the three crashes, the vehicles accelerated as the drivers were attempting to park the vehicles. All three accelerations occurred as the vehicles were entering the intended parking spaces and in the times and positions where driver braking should be initiated to safely park the vehicles," NHTSA said. "No braking was recorded in two of the crash events until the EDR trigger point... and in the third crash no braking was recorded at all."

NHTSA said the crashes "are all consistent with pedal misapplications by the driver mistaking the accelerator pedal for the brake when attempting to park the vehicle. In addition, contrary to the petitioner's assertion regarding previous studies by NHTSA and NASA, the issues raised in the petition are fully within the scope of prior studies which have carefully examined the subject of low-speed sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles equipped with electronic throttle control."

In May, NHTSA denied another petition that claims sudden unintended acceleration problems were occurring in up to 1.6 million Toyota Corollas.

NHTSA said it was closing its review without a full investigation of “low-speed surging” in 2006-2010 Corollas in which brakes fail to stop the car in time to prevent a crash.

The owner of a 2010 Corolla alleged that while parking, the Toyota collided with another parked car. The petition said a review of the NHTSA database found 163 reports in which drivers experienced low-speed power surges in the cars. NHTSA said it found no evidence the driver had applied the brakes.

NHTSA spent years investigating millions of Toyota vehicles for unintended acceleration issues linked to faulty floor mats and other issues. After four people were killed in a crash linked to an accelerator pedal that had been trapped by a floor mat, Toyota recalled more than 10 million vehicles worldwide because of the issue in 2009 and 2010. Several reviews have found no evidence that electronic glitches were to blame for unintended acceleration — but blamed the issues on mechanical interference like floor mats

In March 2014, Toyota paid a $1.2 billion fine to the Justice Department after it was charged with wire fraud. Toyota admitted it misled U.S. consumers by concealing and making deceptive statements to both consumers and regulators about the extent of sudden acceleration problems in 2009 and 2010, the Justice Department said, adding that Toyota minimized problems, misled regulators and provided inaccurate facts to Congress.

Toyota has radically revamped its safety practices since its recall crisis briefly forced the automaker to halt sales of nearly half of its vehicles and led to the company’s president, Akio Toyoda, to appear before Congress to apologize for the company’s handling of safety issues. The company’s safety reputation has dramatically rebounded and it has won high marks in recent quality surveys.

Toyota has settled numerous other suits connected to the problem, including a class-action settlement covering as many as 22 million current and former Toyota owners over sudden acceleration claims valued at as much as $1.63 billion.

NHTSA has been investigating other claims of unintended acceleration — an issue it has reviewed for 40 years, when it first opened an investigation into 60 million General Motors vehicles in 1978. The probe lasted eight years and was closed without finding a defect.

In June 2014, NHTSA said it was investigating 360,000 2012-2014 Nissan Versa cars after receiving four complaints in the U.S. that a trim panel had trapped the edge of the driver’s shoe. A fifth complaint was filed by a driver in a foreign country.

A complaint filed June 9 said a driver had to use their right hand to grab their leg and pull their foot free, almost causing a crash. The complainant included a photograph showing how the edge of the panel wedged itself in the driver’s work boot. That probe was upgraded to an engineering analysis in April.

In May 2014, Ford Motor Co. said it was recalling 82,500 driver’s side all-weather Ford floor mats that may be in 2006-11 Ford Fusion, Mercury Milan, Lincoln Zephyr and MKZ cars. If improperly installed, the mats may come in contact with the accelerator pedal. Owners were asked to return the mats for a new set.

NHTSA has been investigating the floor mat issue for four years. The agency said it had 52 reports of problems with floor mats in its investigation of 480,000 2008-10 Fusion, Milan and MKZ cars. After NHTSA told Ford it was recommending a recall, Ford opted to recall the vehicles.