NHTSA Finds Driver Error to Blame for Most Toyota Sudden Acceleration Accidents

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has announced that human error was to blame for the majority of accidents it has investigated in its probe of sudden acceleration complaints about Toyota vehicles. The agency said its review of onboard data recorders showed that drivers failed to apply the brakes in at least 35 of the 58 accidents it has investigated.

In its report to lawmakers, the NHTSA also said that it has found no evidence that faulty electronics were to blame for any of the accidents. Toyota has consistently claimed that faulty floor mats and brake pedal mechanisms were to blame for unintentional acceleration problems that led to the recall of 9.4 million of its vehicles worldwide since last November.

Last month Toyota spokesman Mike Michels said that the automaker had completed independent investigations of approximately 2,000 sudden acceleration complaints received since last March. Michels said that “virtually all” of the incidents were the result of the driver inadvertently pressing the throttle pedal instead of the brake pedal. To date, Toyota says that it has conducted 4,000 on-site vehicle inspections and has found no evidence of faulty electronic throttle controls.

Commenting on the NHTSA’s preliminary findings, Toyota spokesman Brain Lyons cautioned that the data recorders, often referred to as “black boxes”, do not record accident data until the vehicles air bags are deployed. In an email to a leading auto industry publication, Lyons suggested that “The data should also be independently corroborated, e.g., through physical evidence, other research, etc.”

In the NHTSA’s report to federal lawmakers, the agency stated, “At this early point in its investigation, NHTSA officials have drawn no conclusions about additional causes of unintended acceleration in Toyotas beyond the two defects already known — pedal entrapment and sticking gas pedals.”

The NHTSA said that, in addition to a majority of cases where the brake pedal was not applied at all, it also found cases in which the brake pedals were partially applied. In other cases, the vehicles’ onboard data recorders failed to function properly.

Although the NHTSA’s preliminary findings would appear to corroborate Toyota’s claims about the causes of unintentional acceleration, some are calling into question the scope of the data that has been reviewed.

The NHTSA’s preliminary investigation was limited to Toyota vehicles manufactured after 2007. Prior to 2007, Toyota’s onboard data recorders did not record pre-crash data. According to a study by Safety Research & Strategies, the majority of unintentional acceleration complaints were filed prior to 2007. The study, which was published in February, found that those complaints included a large percentage of 2002-2006 Toyota Camrys and 2005-2006 Toyota Tacoma pickups.

Safety & Research president Sean Kane said, “The idea that Toyota has been exonerated is preposterous given all the facts. This is a small sampling of crashes.” Kane also claims that the vast majority of unintentional acceleration incidents occur at speeds that are too low to activate the vehicles’ onboard data recorders.

The NHTSA is continuing its probe of Toyota and has enlisted the National Academy of Sciences and NASA to help with the investigation.

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