By Peter Whoriskey and Kimberly Kindy
Saturday, February 20, 2010; A01
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.
Last year, a study by Randy Whitfield, a Maryland researcher, showed that the portion of complaints filed with federal regulators against Toyotas involving "speed control" as much as tripled after the company installed electronic throttles.
Whitfield said his company, Quality Control Systems, which analyzes auto safety data, initiated the research on its own. It was first posted online in October 2008. A companion piece, published this month, was paid for by trial attorneys and victims' families.
The attorneys, victims' families and their consultants say several clues suggest that engine electronics could cause Toyotas to malfunction.
For example, in 2002, the company issued a service bulletin to dealers warning that some Camrys "exhibit a surging" at speeds between 38 and 42 mph.
It called for revisions in the calibration of the "engine control module," the electronics that run the engine.
About the same time, the Camry owner's manual offered a warning that the installation of a mobile two-way radio system "could affect electronic systems" in the car, including the electronic throttle system.
And then in 2007, an investigation by federal regulators found that magnetic interference could cause an increase in engine speed in a Toyota Lexus ES 350.
The investigators seemed to consider the increase small, noting that the increase of 1,000 rpms is similar to engine operation in idle, and focused instead on the threat posed by floor mats interfering with the accelerator. But safety advocates say the increase in the engine speed should have been taken as a warning sign.
In response to the suspicions, Toyota has said it has studied its electronics and found no defects.
In December, Toyota hired an independent firm, Exponent, to investigate the electronic throttles. Its initial report has been filed with Congress.
After tests of six cars and more than 100 new and used engine electronics parts, the firm said their investigators couldn't find the trouble.
But, experts cautioned, reproducing electronic problems can be extraordinarily difficult, especially in limited testing. Vibration can break an electronic connection; weather and wear can alter performance.
"If you are looking for a needle in a haystack and you don't find it, it doesn't mean it wasn't there," said Antony Anderson, an electrical engineer who has specialized in electrical failure investigations.
Federal safety regulators, meanwhile, have repeatedly opted not to pursue deeper investigations.
When officials with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced recently that they would review the potential electronics problems, they made clear their skepticism.
"This is not a defect investigation, because the agency has no reason at this point to believe there are safety defects in these systems," the NHTSA said in a written announcement.
Since Toyota hasn't acknowledged any sudden acceleration defects in the '05 Camry, or in the '06 Camry, which is involved in another fatality, what caused the acceleration may remain a mystery.
In court, manufacturers often blame alleged acceleration problems on the driver, attributing the acceleration to "pedal misapplication," or the driver accidentally hitting the accelerator instead of the brake.
In a 1989 report, the NHTSA asserted that drivers over 60 were far more likely than younger drivers to be involved in such an incident, suggesting that deteriorating reflexes are a contributing factor, too.
In each of the three fatal cases involving '05 Camrys, the driver was older than 70.
But the prolonged duration of the three fatal rides, as well as witness accounts, may make it more difficult to blame driver confusion.
Crashes caused by "pedal misapplication" often unfold in just moments -- before the driver has time to realize the mistake and avert trouble.
But the 2005 Camry cases lasted more than a moment.
In the Oklahoma case in September 2007, for example, the police report notes that one of the Camry's rear tires left a skid mark of 150 feet, apparently as Book-out, then 76, applied the emergency brake. Before dying, her passenger told first responders that the car had sped out of control, said Graham Esdale, the attorney representing plaintiffs in the case.
Ezal, then 73, was braking as he entered the parking lot and had enough time to run over a curb and plow through two decorative fences before the Camry carrying the retired engineer and his wife went off the cliff.
In the Michigan case, Alberto, 77, was driving an estimated 75 mph on a street with a 25 mph speed limit on the way to work at her family's store.
"She had both hands on the steering wheel and her eyes were wide open like she was scared or, you know, terrified," a witness, Dante Hairston said in a sworn statement.
As for the question of the driver's age, statistics from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety show that drivers between 70 and 75 years of age experience police-reported accidents at a slightly higher rate than their middle-aged peers on a per-mile basis. But they are roughly the same as drivers between 25 and 30 years old.
"Mrs. Alberto's accident cannot be explained in terms of what Toyota has offered so far with its claims of driver pedal misapplication, floor mats or sticky pedals," said the family's attorney, Edgar F. Heiskell. "The electronic throttle control took over the throttle."