Suspicions linger over acceleration in Toyota Camrys

By Peter Whoriskey and Kimberly Kindy
Saturday, February 20, 2010

Jean Bookout couldn't control her revving car, even after she pulled the emergency brake. It slammed into an embankment beside an Oklahoma interstate, killing her best friend.

Bulent Ezal was about to park his car for lunch when it was propelled over a curb, plowed through two decorative fences and plunged over a 70-foot cliff beside the Pacific Ocean, killing his wife.

Guadalupe Alberto, on the way to the family convenience store, found herself racing at speeds of as much as 75 mph before she slammed her car into a tree. A witness said she appeared terrified as she flew by.

As the first congressional hearings on Toyota get underway Tuesday, one key question will be whether the automaker has fully diagnosed the causes of its runaway cars.

The company says it has discovered the source of the problem in sticky pedals and interfering floor mats, and is fixing them in the millions of cars it has recalled.

But in each of those three fatal episodes, the car involved was a 2005 Toyota Camry, a model that the company has indicated is free of the acceleration defects: It has not been recalled for either the sticky pedal or the floor mat interference.

"This raises a huge red flag," said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety.

He and other safety advocates have their own suspicions, aroused by a history of glitchy behavior in the electronics that control Toyota's engines.

"Many unintended accelerations do not appear to be explained by floor mats and sticky pedals," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who is holding the Tuesday hearing on the recalls. "One of the key questions we will ask at the hearing is whether electronic defects could be responsible."

Toyota officials declined to comment on the cases because they are in litigation.

"We never want to see any injuries or fatalities in our vehicles regardless of the circumstances," spokesman Ed Lewis said, "and nothing is more important to us than the safety and reliability of the vehicles our customers drive."

Electronic throttle systems were introduced in Camrys in 2002, replacing the old mechanical connection between the accelerator pedal and the engine, and it is the operation of these sensors and other electronics that has been the focus of many industry watchdogs.

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