Feds Say Book Still Open on Causes of 'Runaway' Toyotas

"No conclusions" reached, says NHTSA, despite reports blaming driver error.

July 15, 2010 — -- The federal government is discounting reports that it has found that dozens of sudden acceleration cases it has examined can be attributed to so-called "driver error." The U.S. Department of Transportation says it has "drawn no conclusions and released no data" on potential causes of sudden acceleration, despite a newspaper report stating that black box data from Toyota vehicles has led federal investigators to conclude that drivers were the sole culprits in the accidents.

"Engineers at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are continuing to investigate the possible causes of sudden acceleration, along with the National Academy of Sciences and NASA," said DOT spokesperson Olivia Alair. "We will follow the facts and inform the public when our investigation comes to an end."

The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that NHTSA has analyzed dozens of data recorders from Toyota vehicles involved in crashes attributed by the drivers to sudden acceleration. Citing "people familiar with the findings," the Journal reported that the black box data revealed that the "throttles were wide open and the brakes weren't engaged at the time of the crash," suggesting that the driver was hitting the gas pedal by mistake instead of the brake.

The report buoyed Toyota, which has long maintained there is no inherent electrical problems with its cars acceleration systems, though the carmaker has recalled millions of vehicles to make adjustments to gas pedals and floor mats that it says may have caused acceleration incidents. If confirmed, the findings would help Toyota defend itself in a series of proposed class action lawsuits with potential price tags in the billions of dollars.

However, a top DOT official said the department considers the Journal article "completely unsourced and misleading," and that "no information in that article came from NHTSA."

One of the congressmen leading an investigation of Toyota, Rep. Bart Stupak (D.-Mich.), also said it was too early to determine the causes of sudden acceleration, saying that "NHTSA is continuing to collect and analyze data so it is premature to jump to any conclusions at this point." Rep. Stupak is chair of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which has held a number of hearings this year into the Toyota sudden acceleration issue.

Toyota Blames Drivers in Cases of Sudden Acceleration

"There are still many questions unanswered and it is important that all relevant information be examined," said Rep. Stupak. "We want to know what the black box data shows from those accidents my committee specifically requested NHTSA investigate. We need data not just from recent accidents and complaints, but from those complaints that go back as far as 2002 and 2003. Given we don't even know how many data recorders NHTSA has collected data from it is far too early for anyone to be making judgments on what these black boxes may tell us about sudden unintended acceleration."

Meanwhile, Toyota says its own investigation has found that drivers are themselves to blame in "virtually all" cases of sudden acceleration. In an interview Wednesday with Bloomberg, Toyota spokesperson Mike Michels said the company's conclusions were based on a review of about 2,000 sudden acceleration cases, which included analyses of black box data when a crash occurred.

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However, Toyota itself has questioned the reliability of its vehicle data recorders, which it calls a "prototype." The manual for Toyota's SRS Airbag Event Data Recorder states, "The accuracy of the memory of Toyota's Event Data Recorder ("EDR") is still being validated, and the readout tool for the EDR is still in the prototype stage. Toyota cannot verify the complete reliability of such information, unless such data can be independently corroborated, e.g. through physical evidence, etc."

Despite the previous language on its EDR, Toyota spokesperson Brian Lyons told the Blotter that the company considers the data "completely reliable." According to Lyons, the past statements meant that the EDR data should not be used to conduct complete "accident reconstructions," which he said are more complex than simply reading the positions of the brake and gas pedals at the time of a crash.

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