Data Points to Driver Error in Toyota Crashes


Federal investigators looking into reports of unintended acceleration in Toyota Motor (TM) vehicles have found little evidence of an electronic source for the problem, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

In analyzing dozens of data recorders in Toyota vehicles involved in accidents, the Department of Transportation instead found that at time of the crashes, the vehicles' throttles were wide open and the brakes not applied, the newspaper reported Tuesday, citing anonymous sources.

That evidence suggests that owners of Toyota and Lexus vehicles who reported their cars accelerated uncontrollably were mistakenly pressing down on the gas pedal rather than the brakes. Though the evidence doesn't exonerate Toyota from two known issues of the problem -- sticky gas pedals and bulky floor mats that may pin the accelerator to the floor, the Journal said.

Toyota has recalled nearly 7 million cars in the U.S. to fix those problems. The sticky pedal recall was also the source of a $16.4 million fine imposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In imposing the fine, the maximum allowable under current law, regulators said Toyota dragged its feet in issuing a recall in January to fix the problem, which affects 2.3 million cars and trucks. The company paid the fine in April.

Federal Analysis

The data recorders examined by NHTSA were from cars of owners who reported their vehicles accelerated despite pressing down on the brake pedal and subsequently crashed. The data recorders analyzed by federal investigators were selected by NHTSA -- not Toyota, the Journal report noted.

NHTSA's findings are consistent with a 1989 government-sponsored study that blamed similar driver mistakes for a rash of sudden-acceleration reports involving Audi 5000 sedans, the Journal said. They also echo findings of a March incident in suburban Harrison, N.Y., involving a Prius hybrid, which the driver reported sped up uncontrollably before hitting a brick wall. Investigations by NHTSA and local police determined the accident was caused by driver error and resulted from the driver not applying the brakes during the incident.

NHTSA has received more than 3,000 complaints of sudden acceleration in Toyotas, some dating back to early last decade, according to a report the agency compiled in March. The incidents include 75 fatal crashes involving 93 deaths, the Journal said.

NHTSA hasn't yet released its findings looking into the Toyota matter and declined comment about the information contained in the data recorders, the Journal said. Transportation Department officials, however, have said publicly that they have yet to find any electronic problems in Toyota cars.

Toyota has contended that "pedal misapplication" is the source of most instances of unintentional acceleration since the issue came to light earlier this year.

In April, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood enlisted the aid of NASA and the National Academy of Sciences to examine electronic interference as a possible source of unintended acceleration. The agencies are preparing separate studies and will issue a report, but not for several months.

Toyota has taken several initiatives to repair its battered image caused by floor mat and gas pedal recalls, as well as numerous others involving brakes, electronic stability control software, faulty engine valve springs and more. Among the initiatives, the company, lead by President Akio Toyoda, has formed a global task force to improve product quality on a region-by-region basis.

The world's largest automaker is also slowing development time of new vehicles by a month, and assigning some 1,000 engineers, out of a staff of nearly 14,000, to deal specifically with quality issues. The company also plans to open seven additional safety field offices across North America to aid in investigations of vehicle defects, which have resulted in the recall of some 10 million cars worldwide.