DOT Report: Driver Error, Not Defects to Blame in Toyota Sudden Acceleration

The U.S. Department of Transportation, as part of its ongoing investigation, has found no defects with Toyota vehicles that reportedly experienced sudden, unintended acceleration and has instead uncovered evidence suggesting driver error is to blame according to a report in The Wall Street Journal citing anonymous sources.

According to the Journal's sources, the analysis of "dozens" of data recorders, also known as "black boxes," has revealed that at the times of the crashes, the throttles were wide open and the brakes were not being depressed. Such evidence suggests that the drivers were mistakenly standing on the gas pedal when they thought they were standing on the brakes.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has reportedly investigated several dozen reports of Toyota vehicles that failed to stop accelerating when the brakes were depressed, resulting in a crash. NHTSA hand selected the cases it picked and the data recorders it analyzed based on reports to the agency and without input from Toyota. According to a report NHTSA complied in March of this year, the agency has received over 3000 complaints of sudden acceleration, 75 of which resulted in fatal accidents in which 93 people died.

In collaborating with the National Academy of Sciences, NHTSA revealed that it has only been able to confirm one case of legitimate sudden acceleration in those 75 fatal accidents. That accident was the catalyst that sparked the entire scandal, an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer who crashed on the freeway near San Diego, California, on August 28, 2009 killing all the occupants of the vehicle.

That crash was eventually attributed to an all-weather floor mat from a different vehicle that had been placed on top of the car's own carpeted floor mats and had become lodged under the gas pedal, holding it down and the throttle open. That accident led to global floor mat recall and later to a recall of certain throttle pedals that were slow to return to idle, eventually encompassing more than eight million vehicles. The NHTSA report does not excuse those issues and the agency previously levied its highest-possible fine of $16.4 million against Toyota for failing to disclose the sticky pedal problem sooner.

"In spite of our investigations, we have not actually been able yet to find a defect" in electronic throttle-control systems, NHTSA's associate administrator for enforcement, Daniel Smith, told the National Academy of Sciences last month. "We're bound and determined that if it exists we're going to find it," he added. "But as yet, we haven't found it."

Toyota hasn't been officially informed of NHTSA's findings, but a Toyota spokesman confirmed to the Journal that the agency's findings matched their own. Toyota says that beyond analyzing black box data, the company has also tested for electromagnetic interference with its electronic throttle assemblies and encountered no problems worse than radio static The company and its CEO have publicly refused to blame customers for the accidents, even if the evidence points towards driver error. Toyota has gone into overdrive as it works to repair its tattered safety and reliability image. A NHTSA spokeswoman declined comment when contacted by the Journal, saying only that the agency is continuing to investigate the issue and that it would not comment until the full investigation in partnership with the National Academy of Sciences and NASA is complete. That report isn't expected for several months.

Should the report accurately describe NHTSA's findings, it would closely mirror in the infamous Audi 5000 sudden acceleration case of the 1980s. A government-sponsored report released in 1989 found driver error at fault, thanks in part to pedals mounted closely together and the relative ease of shifting to Drive with the throttle mistakenly floored. The incident lead to the implementation of interlocks that force the driver to step on the brake pedal before they can shift out of Park. The Toyota scandal has likewise led to a new brake override function that disables the throttle when the brake pedal is depressed.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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