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Toyota Black Box Tests Show Driver Error Caused Crashes

Fleet of Toyotas

A Department of Transportation analysis found that in the dozens of accidents involving Toyota vehicles that had been blamed on sudden acceleration, the brakes were not engaged at all.AP

The U.S. Department of Transportation has analyzed dozens of data recorders from Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles involved in accidents blamed on sudden acceleration and found that the throttles were wide open and the brakes weren't engaged at the time of the crash, people familiar with the findings said.

The early results suggest that some drivers who said their Toyotas and Lexuses surged out of control were mistakenly flooring the accelerator when they intended to jam on the brakes.

But the findings — part of a broad, ongoing federal investigation into Toyota's recalls — don't exonerate the car maker from two known issues blamed for sudden acceleration in its vehicles: "sticky" accelerator pedals that don't return to idle and floor mats that can trap accelerators to the floor.

The findings by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration involve a sample of the reports in which a driver of a Toyota vehicle said the brakes were depressed but failed to stop the car from accelerating and ultimately crashing.
A NHTSA spokeswoman declined to comment on the findings, which haven't been released by the agency.

The data recorders analyzed by NHTSA were selected by the agency, not Toyota, based on complaints the drivers had filed with the government. Toyota hasn't been involved in interpreting the data.

The initial 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 Toyota findings appear to support Toyota's position that sudden-acceleration reports involving its vehicles weren't caused by electronic glitches in computer-controlled throttle systems, as some safety advocates and plaintiffs' attorneys have alleged. More than 100 people have sued the car maker over crashes they claim were the result of faulty electronics.

It is unknown how many data recorders NHTSA has read so far. The agency's investigators have been reading the data only since Toyota provided the agency with 10 reading devices in March.

Since then, investigators have responded to accidents involving sudden acceleration when the driver claims to have been stepping on the brakes.

Because the data recorders can lose their information if disconnected from the car's battery or if the battery dies — as could happen after a crash — the agency is focusing only on recent accidents, said a person familiar with the situation.

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

However, NHTSA has been able to verify that only one of those fatal crashes was caused by a problem with the vehicle, according to information the agency provided to the National Academy of Sciences. That accident last Aug. 28, which killed a California highway patrolman and three passengers in a Lexus, was traced to a floor mat that trapped the gas pedal in the depressed position.

Toyota has since recalled more than eight million cars globally to fix floor mats and sticky accelerators.

Click here for more on this story from The Wall Street Journal.