NHTSA Disputes Toyota’s Claim of No Defects in Recent Recall

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has sharply reprimanded Toyota Motor Corporation for issuing what it calls “inaccurate and misleading” statements concerning its recent recall of 3.8 million vehicles. The recall was prompted in large part by an accident that claimed the lives of four people in San Diego County, California when the accelerator of the Lexus sedan they were traveling in apparently became stuck, causing the vehicle to accelerate out of control.

Japan’s No. 1 automaker claimed that no defects existed in the vehicles recalled and blamed the August 28, 2009 fatal accident and other similar occurrences on improperly installed floor mats.

The NHTSA, in a statement issued earlier this month, asserted that the Toyota and Lexus models recalled by Toyota have an “underlying defect” in the driver’s-side foot well and accelerator pedal.

In early November, Toyota mailed out recall notices to customers requesting that they remove the driver’s-side floor mats from their vehicles. The letters also went on to assure recipient’s that “no defect exists in vehicles in which the driver’s floor mat is compatible with the vehicle and properly secured."

Toyota also posted an online video in which it disputed news reports claiming incidents of unintentional acceleration may have resulted from faulty electronic throttle control systems installed in certain Toyota and Lexus models.

The NHTSA’s response stated "Safety is the No. 1 priority for NHTSA and this is why officials are working with Toyota to find the right way to fix this very dangerous problem. This matter is not closed until Toyota has effectively addressed the defect by providing a suitable vehicle-based solution."

Many industry experts agreed that the response was unusual both in the severity of its tone and the public nature of its delivery and could add to Toyota’s recent troubles.

Safety Research & Strategies, Incorporated co-founder Sean Kane said “This is particularly public at a particularly difficult time for Toyota.” He added, “Toyota was trying to say it has a clean bill of health from NHTSA, when it does not."

Toyota responded to the NHTSA statement by saying it was, "never our intention to mislead or provide inaccurate information." The company added that it was working on “vehicle-based” solutions to the problems. Toyota spokesman Brain Lyons, last month, said that the solutions might include repositioning the accelerator pedal and modifications to software in the autos’ onboard computers.

Since issuing the voluntary recall on September 29, Toyota has continued to focus on the vehicles’ floor mats as the source of unintended acceleration that prompted the recall of 2007-2010 Camrys, 2004-2009 Priuses, 2005-2010 Avalons, 2005-2010 Tacoma pickups, 2007-2010 Tundra pickups, 2007-2010 Lexus ES 350s and 2006-2010 Lexus IS 250s and IS 350s.

The NHTSA has conducted investigations of eight separate allegations of unintentional acceleration of Toyota vehicles since 2003.

Two separate investigations involving the carpet panels installed in 2004 model year Sienna minivans and floor mats installed in Lexus ES350s and Toyota Camrys also resulted in recalls.

The agency also closed six other probes of unwanted acceleration allegations. In those investigations, the agency found no defects but did warn that certain engineering and design features, including push-button ignitions, could present an increased risk in the event of an unintentional acceleration. The agency also found that the power and effectiveness of the vehicles’ braking system could be significantly diminished when the vehicles’ throttles were fully opened.

An NHTSA investigation of the San Diego fatality accident found that the Lexus sedan had all-weather floor mats intended for use in a Lexus SUV. However, the probe also went on to claim that the design of the Lexus sedan’s accelerator pedal may have contributed to the accident by enhancing the risk of becoming obstructed by a loose or improper floor mat.

Responding to allegations that faulty engine control systems, braking systems or electromagnetic interference have been the cause of unintentional accelerations, Toyota’s senior vice president, Bob Daly, said "There is no evidence to support those theories.” He went on to say, "The question of unintended acceleration involving Toyota and Lexus vehicles has been repeatedly and thoroughly investigated by NHTSA, without any finding of defect other than the risk from an unsecured or incompatible driver’s floor mat."

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