NHTSA report clears up mystery - and hysteria - on Toyota cars

Tuesday, February 8, 2011; 7:42 PM

AFTER A 10-MONTH study, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and NASA have concluded that the cause of sudden accelerations of Toyotas last year was not, as widely speculated, a software flaw that the company would not acknowledge. Some of the incidents were caused by "pedal misapplication" - that is, a driver mistakenly slamming on the gas instead of the brake - and some by sticking pedals or floor mat entanglement. And what of the spike in reported malfunctions? The publicity that enveloped the federal investigations - which led to the recall of more than 8.5 million cars and congressional hearings that hauled Toyota President Akio Toyoda to Capitol Hill - "was the major contributor to the timing and volume of complaints."

In short, human error, mechanical errors that Toyota repaired and a dose of politically induced hysteria were to blame. The congressional hearings often were aimed more at generating headlines than getting to the bottom of a confusing situation. It's right to ask tough questions of corporate executives and public officials. But the absence of restraint and perspective did not help get at the truth. Company officials were put in an impossible situation, since blaming Toyota customers - though this was true in many cases - would have been a public relations disaster.

One redeeming result of the hearings was Congress ordering the studies released Tuesday. Many feared that faulty electronics or electromagnetic interference were the problem. No abnormalities were found in more than 280,000 lines of software code that were analyzed. Radiation above and beyond industry standards aimed at the cars didn't cause them to suddenly accelerate. And the final report confirmed preliminary findings released last September. Data recorders - or black boxes - in the cars of those who complained of sudden acceleration found no evidence of mechanical error. What they did show was that the "most likely cause" was "pedal misapplication." In the case of prolonged acceleration, NHTSA attributes it to the pedal getting trapped by the floor mat. Remember this when the next crisis hits.


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