2007 federal probe of Toyota complaints resolved nothing

Last year, Toyota took the extraordinary step of suspending the manufacture and sale of some of its most popular models because of a flaw in their accelerators. Toyota executives soon were called to Capitol Hill for testimony and a probe was launched to find the cause of the problem.
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 4, 2010

Federal regulators uncovered stark evidence that some Toyota cars accelerated unexpectedly more than two years ago. But neither the government's safety agency nor the automaker apparently recognized at the time how broad the dangers would turn out to be.

During a little-noticed 2007 inquiry, investigators found that at least three of every 100 Lexus ES 350 owners in Ohio reported experiencing unintended acceleration, an unacceptably high percentage given the potentially fatal consequences, industry experts said.

"Anything over 1 percent would raise a red flag, particularly for the manufacturer," said James C. Fell, who worked at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for 30 years, and was chief of research for traffic safety programs.

The investigation opened formally in August 2007, one of the few times NHTSA commenced a full-fledged investigation into reports of Toyotas accelerating unexpectedly. More often, the inquiries have ended at the "preliminary evaluation" stage, meaning investigators reviewed the reports but didn't venture into engineering analysis. In this case, they acquired a Lexus ES 350 and attached instruments to it to monitor the operation of its accelerator and brake pedal. The investigators also exposed the accelerator system to magnetic fields.

Investigators also gathered accounts of drivers crashing in cars that sped out of control. Among those interviewed was a 70-year-old Illinois woman who was taken on a two-mile ride at 60 mph before she collided with another vehicle in an intersection.

But the investigation only partially identified the cause of the problem and, moreover, concluded it only affected a relatively small number of cars.

This week, as the automaker found its reputation for quality and reliability under assault, a reading of the Lexus inquiry raises questions about why the automaker and the safety agency failed to prevent the problem from causing the current furor.

Officials now seem intent on leaving no stone unturned, taking pains to err on the side of caution. On Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he would urge Toyota owners to stop driving recalled vehicles immediately. He later backed off his remarks, but shares of Toyota plunged by more than 7 percent in the moments following the reporting of his statements.

Japanese officials, meanwhile, have directed Toyota to investigate the 2010 Prius braking system while their U.S. counterparts said they will conduct their own probe of the Prius's brakes. Of 171 complaints filed by 2010 Prius owners with the NHTSA, 111 involved brake problems, the agency's database shows, and at least two led to driver injuries.

If anything was learned from the 2007 inquiry into unintended acceleration, those lessons have not gotten the company very far, for Toyota today seems to be wrangling with the same issue: What exactly is causing the problem?

Last fall, Toyota announced that it had resolved the problem by issuing a recall of floor mats. The mats, the company said, sometimes trapped the accelerator in the depressed position.

Then in recent weeks, it announced that it had identified another cause -- sticking accelerator pedals. Millions more vehicles were recalled.

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