GM or Toyota, any manufacturer that is underhanded and deceitful with
customers deserves to be nailed to the wall.
Toyota accused of 'not being frank' on problem
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
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
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
"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
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
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 without
querying Toyota for data.
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."