Two years ago, the U.S. government was so concerned about sudden acceleration problems in a specific Toyota model that it decided to do its own testing to try to figure out what was causing the problem. The government then ruled out electronics as a cause – and safety experts believe that was a mistake.
Regulators with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration were alarmed after reports of 40 sudden accelerations with the 2007 Lexus ES350 sedan, a Toyota product, resulting in eight crashes and 12 injuries.
NHTSA documents show that the agency ran a series of tests on a Lexus sedan, ultimately concluding the problem was the floor mats trapping the accelerator pedal. In an April 2008 report, the government ruled out any problem with the vehicle's electronic control system. Auto safety advocates believe that was a mistake, and accuse the government of not pursing the issue aggressively enough.
Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, asked NHTSA for specific details on how it tested the electronic system. The government's written response: "We searched for, but found no records relating to or describing test protocols."
Ditlow told ABC News, "They have no documentation on what they did or the results. So they don't know what test procedures they used, how they carried out the test, or what data they got."
"It tells us," Ditlow added, "that the government did not do a good investigation into whether it was an electronic system failure." Safety expert Sean Kane of Safety Research & Strategies also told ABC News that he believed it was a mistake for the government to rule out electronics.
As reported on the Blotter, NHTSA has conducted repeated investigations into acceleration in Toyotas and ruled out electronics as the cause.
The final NHTSA report also indicates that not everyone who had the sudden acceleration problem blamed it on floor mats. The government surveyed 1,986 registered owners of the Lexus ES-350. Six hundred people responded, and of those 59 said their car had suddenly sped up without warning. Thirty-five of those 59 blamed all-weather floor mats for trapping the accelerator pedal.
As Toyota now moves ahead with a fix to the vehicles' gas pedals, it's clear that floor mats were hardly the only problem. Now the automaker and the government are taking another look at the vehicles' electronic systems, although still insisting those systems are not to blame.
In a statement, the government said, "NHTSA's continuing investigation includes looking at the possibility that electromagnetic interference might somehow be causing Toyota's electronic throttle controls systems to malfunction, though NHTSA has not seen evidence to support that yet."
Auto safety experts hope this time the government does a more detailed investigation.