Sen. Schumer to Toyota: Cooperate with Investigators of New York Prius Accident

Photo: 911 tapes released of Calif. runaway Toyota Prius incidentWABC/ABC News
A 56-year-old woman in Harrison, N.Y., drove this 2005 Toyota Prius into a stone wall on March 9, 2010. She says the car began accelerating and would not stop accelerating.

In a press conference held near the site of a possible "Runaway Toyota" crash, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D.-N.Y., today asked that Toyota cooperate fully with local investigators looking into the incident.

"It's time for Toyota to work in good faith with the Harrison Police Department and turn over the information that the investigators need to get to the bottom of this accident," Schumer said. In the Tuesday accident, a driver hit a stone wall with her 2005 Prius after what she described as unintended acceleration.

Schumer also claimed that until pressure from his own office, from acting Harrison police chief Capt. Anthony Marraccini, and from Rep. Nita Lowey, D.-N.Y., Toyota had refused to turn over relevant information from the crash. Initial press accounts said that Capt. Marraccini felt Toyota had refused to provide information from the car's Electronic Data Recorder, the "black box" that records electronic information about the operation of a vehicle prior to a crash.

Press accounts and congressional testimony have indicated that it is more difficult to get Event Data Recorder information from Toyota officials than from other car companies. A recent Associated Press report said that Toyota has refused to provide information to crash victims, and has sometimes settled lawsuits rather than provide information or released only partial information.

In a statement to ABC News, Toyota strongly denied that it is slow in providing information, and said it always cooperates with law enforcement. Toyota denied that it had refused at any point to provide the EDR data to the Harrison investigators, saying it has a policy of always sharing the information with NHTSA and law enforcement officials upon request.

"We will happily offer up the information to any law enforcement agency with jurisdiction," said Toyota spokesperson John Hanson.

In an interview with ABC News prior to the Schumer press conference, Marraccini said Toyota had agreed to provide the black box information.

According to Marraccini, after the Tuesday accident Toyota had asked him to release the vehicle to the company for inspection, but he had refused because the car was part of an ongoing investigation. He says he did not initially "receive an affirmative answer" from the company on reading the black box, but has now been told yes.

"They're willing to cooperate and offer whatever comfort level we need to protect the integrity of the investigation," Marraccini said.

Marraccini said the managing counsel for Toyota called Thursday night to say the data could be read on March 17. He said that on Friday morning, Toyota faxed him a letter confirming that the company would read the EDR information and otherwise cooperate in the investigation.

"As we discussed, Toyota is glad to assist your law enforcement agency with your current vehicle accident investigation of a 2005 Prius. You requested we provide technical assistance with regard to the read out of the vehicle's Event Data Recorder. One of our technical analysts, [NAME WITHHELD], will provide that expertise. We have agreed on an inspection date of Wednesday, Mar. 17, 2010. We understand we have the authorization from the owner."

"I don't think that's a bad turnaround time," said Marraccini.

"We will happily offer up the information to any law enforcement agency with jurisdiction," said Toyota spokesperson John Hanson.

During congressional testimony Thursday, former NHTSA head Joan Claybrook compared Toyota's record on black box data to that of other car companies. "Toyota, unlike U.S. manufacturers, has made it almost impossible to secure black box information," said Claybrook, testifying at a House Commerce Committee hearing. "It has not made available any downloading systems, saying the one it had in the U.S. was a prototype."

Said Claybrook, "To the best of my knowledge, Toyota has not made available to NHTSA any black box information about its vehicles involved in sudden acceleration crashes."

Toyota has attributed the difficulty to differences in its system of data collection. Toyota uses proprietary software, and the black boxes in Toyotas could previously only be read in Japan or at Toyota's U.S. headquarters in California. Toyota has pledged to increase greatly the number of data readers available in the United States. Three readers have been delivered to NHTSA, and 150 will be distributed for commercial use before the end of next month.

The Harrison incident occurred Tuesday morning as the 56-year-old driver had just turned out of a long and winding driveway. Though she had not previously experienced problems with sudden acceleration in the car, because of news reports she was taking the car to a local Toyota dealership to be checked.

"She said the car accelerated and continued to accelerate," Marraccini told ABC News. "She said she tried to brake." According to Capt. Marraccini, the driver kept hitting the brakes, but the car wouldn't stop. The vehicle traveled about 150 feet before the driver lost control, crossed two lanes and hit a stone wall. The woman suffered an injury to her knee.

Marraccini said his department checked to see if the floor mat might have caused the accident. "From our investigation, it doesn't appear the floor mat was the cause," he said. The floor mat was secured to the car floor with the factory-issued hook and also tied to the seat base with a plastic tie. Marraccini said he believed it had been taken to a Toyota dealership to be serviced.

Like the 2008 Prius, the 2005 Prius is covered by the floor mat recall, but not the gas pedal recall.

At his Tuesday press conference, Sen. Schumer also announced a bill that he said would protect consumers from buying products that are under recall or are known to the seller to be dangerous. "This is about basic fairness," said Schumer. "If a person goes out to buy a product, they have the right to know all the facts. If a product is being recalled, then the information should be readily available for consumers as well, and that's what I'm going to fight to make happen."

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