The LA Times, which over the past several weekends has been digging into the sudden unintended acceleration (SUA) problems in Toyota and Lexus cars following the fatal crash of California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor and his family in August, published another story Sunday that claims that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) repeatedly closed investigations into SUA complaints prematurely.
The Times story says that there have been at least 8 investigations into SUA in Toyota and Lexus vehicles since 2001 triggered by more than 1,000 driver complaints. All but two of the investigations were closed without finding any defect.
However, as the Times notes,
"... those [closed] investigations systematically excluded or dismissed the majority of complaints by owners that their Toyota and Lexus vehicles had suddenly accelerated, which sharply narrowed the scope of the probes... Federal officials eliminated broad categories of sudden-acceleration complaints, including cases in which drivers said they were unable to stop runaway cars using their brakes; incidents of unintended acceleration lasting more than a few seconds; and reports in which owners did not identify the possible causes of the problem."
By excluding these types of what appear to be legitimate complaints, the NHTSA then closed their investigations because there wasn't enough data to support an investigation.
For instance, the Times notes that, "In a 2003 Lexus probe ... the agency threw out all but one of 37 customer complaints cited in a defect petition. It then halted further investigation, saying it 'found no data indicating the existence of a defect trend.' "
Then, the paper reported, "In 2005.., Jordan Ziprin of Phoenix, who had experienced a minor accident he blamed on sudden acceleration, filed a defect petition with the NHTSA that included nearly 1,200 owner complaints about Toyota vehicles. The automaker argued that the majority should be eliminated because they dealt 'with two completely different issues.' "
"When owners said the 'vehicle unintentionally or suddenly 'accelerated,' Toyota claimed that represented a different issue than when they said "the vehicle 'surged' or 'lurched.' The NHTSA ultimately went a step further, eliminating every single complaint except Ziprin's, finding them to have 'ambiguous significance.' "
NHTSA officials admitted that the exclusions were made, but defended the practice in a statement to the LA Times:
"While some vehicles may be excluded from the scope of an investigation into a specific defect allegation, all are continuously reviewed, along with other relevant information, in order to identify other emerging issues of concern."
The NHTSA insists that, "Safety is the No. 1 priority" of the agency.
However, the NHTSA also has refused to reopen investigations it has closed even if new information surfaces, the LA Times says. For instance, a reason for tossing out complaints was an assumption made in 2004 by the NHTSA and Toyota that brakes can always overcome a vehicle's engine and stop a car.
Both the NHTSA and Toyota now admit that may not be true.
A report over the weekend in Bloomberg News says that more people are suing Toyota for SUA involving their vehicles. It may be that the courts - and maybe more importantly the court of public opinion - which will decide whether Toyota vehicles are safe or not, not the NHTSA.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.