As part of our ongoing investigation into Unintended Acceleration in Toyota vehicles, Safety Research & Strategies has identified 330 UA complaints reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for incidents that occurred in 2011. These complaints range from consumers who experienced multiple instances of UA to events that resulted in a crash. Below, we’ve captured six of those stories in interviews with Toyota owners.
In addition, a separate review identified 247 unique UA incidents following repairs made to the vehicle in one or more of the Toyota recall remedies.
The 2011 NHTSA complaint data suggest that Toyota has not recalled all of the vehicles in need of a remedy. The post-recall UA incidents, reported to the agency between February 2010 and January 2012, further suggest that the remedies were ineffective.
What is most striking in reading the 2011 complaints is how little anything has changed. The most troubled vehicles – the Camry, the Tacoma and Lexus ES350 – continue to show up in the complaints. The scenarios vehicle owners report are the same:
* Low speed incidents, often described as occurring while parking or repositioning a vehicle, during which vehicles accelerate or surge very quickly while the driver is braking or lightly pressing on the accelerator pedal.
* High speed incidents, often described as occurring on highways, during which vehicle speed increases without increased driver pressure on the accelerator pedal, or highway speed that is maintained after the driver has removed his or her foot from the accelerator pedal.
* Incidents in which vehicles are described as hesitating, surging, or lurching. Consumers reporting this type of incident often indicate that their vehicles are not immediately responsive to pressure on the accelerator pedal; instead there is a delay between operator input and acceleration, followed by higher acceleration than intended, often described as a surge or lurch.
As ever, the vast majority are low-speed/parking incidents, resulting in property damage. However, there continue to be high-speed, long duration events and cruise control-related events. Toyota dutifully inspects these vehicles and tells the owner that the car is “operating as designed.” Dealers continue to follow the floor mat/driver error script.
One thing that appears to have changed: more Toyota owners, now educated about Toyota’s UA problems, have a strategy for dealing with an incident and also take note of the position of their feet. Many drivers specifically report braking at the time of the UA, and shifting the transmission into neutral to bring the vehicle under control. Here are their stories.
[NOTE: SRS’s systematic review uses a combination of keyword searching and manual review to identify consumer complaints describing UA incidents in Toyota vehicles. We define UA as any uncommanded torque to the wheels of a vehicle or incidents in which drivers report uncommanded engine RPM increase when the vehicle transmission is in the Park position. Our manual review decreases the likelihood of including complaints unrelated to UA. We also acknowledge that this method introduces subjectivity into our characterization of the complaints. We reduce that bias via agreement by multiple readers that a complaint should be included.]
Teresa Young, Pasadena, California
On May 26, Teresa Young, a biologist from Pasadena, Calif., was early for her morning class at the Shan Tung Kung Fu martial arts center in the Roosevelt Place shopping center. She spotted a space right in front of the studio and turned left. She had her foot on the brake of her 2005 Prius and was cruising slowly toward the low concrete parking stop. She was about to shut down the car, when the engine started to race. Young had her foot on the brake, but the Prius continued to move forward. She pushed the brake harder, but the vehicle engine revved, continuing on its path, over the concrete stop, the sidewalk and through the plate glass window of the martial arts studio. The Prius was in the martial arts studio when Young shifted the vehicle into neutral and tried to turn the engine off. The Prius did not respond to Young’s repeated attempts to shut it down. At this point, Young’s feet were on the floor pan – not on any pedal, and the Prius continued to move forward, but in the leftward direction of the wheels. The Prius drove right into a wall. In a small panic, Young grabbed her key fob and her purse, and exited via the passenger side door.
“My thought was: ‘I’ve got to get out of this car,’” she recalled.
By this time, her martial arts instructor and security guard were on the scene. The passenger door was still open, the Prius engine was still revving, but stationary, and still in neutral.
“The security guard decided to get everyone out of that side of the building. He feared my vehicle and he had every right to fear that vehicle,” she says.
A tow truck driver attempted to pull the vehicle out of the wall, but after 20 minutes of futile effort, the police handed him the key fob. The tow operator put the vehicle in reverse and backed it out. The vehicle was never examined by Toyota as far as Young knows. It sat, covered at the Pasadena dealership, until she agreed to sell it for research, and replaced it with a Chevy Volt.
Young had been the sole owner of her Prius. She bought it out of environmental concerns and kept it well-maintained. She was aware of the Toyota unintended acceleration controversy, but didn’t pay it much mind. Young did make sure that she took her vehicle in for all of the UA recall remedies. The Prius never gave her a day’s trouble, but about month before her spectacular entrance at Shan Tung Kung Fu, she does recall not being able to shut off her Prius one day. The vehicle did not respond to depressing the ignition button. It took several tries and prolonged push to finally shut the engine down.
“I just thought it was weird,” she says.
Tanya Spotts, Hamilton, Virginia
Tanya Spotts had only owned her 2011 Lexus ES350 for six months, when she experienced an unintended acceleration event on December 26. She was pulling into a second-floor space in parking garage in Reston Town Center, with her foot on the brake. With about three feet to go before coming to a complete stop, her vehicle surged and slammed into the concrete wall in front of her. Spotts, a Realtor, looked down and saw her foot firmly on the brake. In fact, she was braking so hard that she sprained and bruised her foot, requiring treatment.
While her car sustained minor damage, Spotts’ confidence in her Lexus was completely shattered.
“I honestly loved the car,” she says.
Spotts had been a dyed-in-the-wool Toyota fan, who had always owned Toyotas. She spurned her husband’s advice to buy a Jaguar last spring. The Lexus ES350 was her dream car, and while Spotts knew about the unintended acceleration controversy, it did not dissuade her, either.
“I really dismissed it, because the government was involved and they concluded there were no other problems,” she said.
Spotts promptly reported the incident to her insurer and to the dealership, Pohanka Lexus of Chantilly, Virginia. Toyota has scheduled an inspection to read the EDR data. But Spotts does not expect the EDR to reveal anything, since the airbag did not deploy. Nor does she hold out any hope that Lexus will take back the sedan. Her Lexus remains parked and Spotts now finds herself in the dilemma of many Toyota owners before her.
“Thank God, there was nobody in front of my car. My biggest fear is that I carry so many people in my car. If this had happened at my office, there are so many pedestrians. I could not live with myself if I took this car and continued to drive it after an unexplained acceleration,” she says. “I feel like I’m held hostage by this car. I can’t drive it and I can’t sell it.”
Russell Damsky, Cragsmoor, New York
Russ Damsky experienced two unintended acceleration events in his leased 2011 RAV4 within three days of driving the SUV. Damsky was another Toyota fan who was not put off by the unintended acceleration news stories.
“I thought, obviously this is something they are going to fix so I didn’t give it a second thought when I went in for the 2011 RAV4.”
In January 2011, he leased a new RAV4. Two days later, on January 12, he experienced his first incident. He was in the midst of a right-hand turn into a shopping center, travelling well under 20 mph.
“I thought, ‘That’s funny. I’m stepping on the brakes, but the brakes aren’t working. I put all of my weight and stood on the brake. The car was roaring,” Damsky recalled. “I instinctively put it into neutral and kept my foot on the brake. In a moment, the car went back to idle.”
Damsky immediately called the dealership in Newburgh, New York, and made an appointment the next day to have the RAV4 inspected. On the way to the dealership, about 30 miles away, Damsky experienced a second unintended acceleration. Again, Damsky had his foot on the brake, slowing for a red light, when the SUV’s engine began to accelerate. The former actor employed the same strategy, throwing the vehicle into neutral, and it returned to idle.
Dealership personnel were skeptical, Damsky said. The general manager was “brusque.”
“He went into the rhetoric: ‘This was going to be a problem; that doesn’t happen, the RAV4 has never had that problem.’ I told him: ‘I’ve been driving well over 40 years and it wasn’t driver error. This car has a problem.’”
When Damsky learned that Toyota was sending a tech to inspect the vehicle, he asked the dealership if the technician could wait until he got there. Damsky wound up missing the test drive by a few minutes, but he never had to get in that RAV4 again. During his field test, another vehicle rear-ended it and pushed the SUV into a guardrail. The insurance company totaled the vehicle. Damsky got a different RAV4, which he intends to drive until the lease expires. But, his affection for Toyota is gone:
“I wouldn’t buy another Toyota,” he says. “Not because I didn’t like the car, but because of the way they handled it.”
Don Oxley, DeSoto, Kansas
On January 23, 2011, Don Oxley intended to wash the road salt off of his 2004 Camry. Instead, he added some scrapes to the Camry’s hood, windshield pillar and roof in an unexpected encounter with a rising carwash door. Oxley was stopped in front of the door of the automated car wash, and had punched in the code to initiate the sequence. The light turned green and the door began to open, so he shifted the Camry out of “Park” and into “Drive” to inch forward. As soon as he let off the brake pedal, the Camry suddenly accelerated forward, hitting the car wash door before it could fully open.
“I thought I was going to sail right through the whole car wash,” he recalled. “It freaked me out real bad. I slammed on the brakes with both feet and put it in park and shut it off and it was normal after that.”
Oxley estimates he traveled about 15 to 20 feet before he successfully stopped the Camry.
“I took it into the Toyota dealer, they checked and found nothing, but blamed it on the floor mats. I’m not quite dumb enough to believe the floor mat jumped on the accelerator and stomped it to the floor, but that’s what they want people to think.”
Larraine LeBlonde, Mt. Prospect, Illinois
Larraine LeBlonde was thrilled last October to make the final payment on her 2006 Corolla, when her vehicle began to behave erratically. She has an easy commute from her home in the Chicago suburbs to her job at a retail outlet in an area mall. And her first unintended acceleration event occurred when she was at a stop light at a highway entrance ramp. Her Corolla attempted to surge forward, up an incline. LeBlonde was able to hold it into place with her foot on the brake.
“I thought, ‘Oooh, this is different,’” she recalled.
The surge eventually stopped, the light changed and LeBlonde continued on her way. But that wasn’t the last of it. From mid-October to the first week in December, the Corolla had dozens of similar surges. The scenario was roughly the same: the UA occurred when her foot was already on the brake, at a light or stop sign or while parking. She was able to control the vehicle by firmly pressing the brake – the surges didn’t push the engine beyond 2,500 rpms – and moving the transmission to neutral. A few times, when the engine refused to return to idle, she would turn off the Corolla and re-start it.
LeBlonde’s Corolla was part of the Toyota’s August recall for 1.3 million Corolla and Matrix vehicles to replace the Engine Control Module for an unexpected stalling condition. And although she never had that problem with her Corolla, she tried twice unsuccessfully to bring it into an area dealership for the remedy.
Her surging condition, however, sent her to the Internet in search of information about Unintended Acceleration, and she called Toyota’s customer service line looking for an answer.
“I thought I could call them and be advised about what to do, so I wouldn’t go into a mystery situation,” she said. “I thought that if they had heard about it before, they would be able to name a part. I’m not very car savvy and I didn’t want my car to spend a ton of time at the dealership while they tried one thing after another. The representative was pretty much skeptical. She said that the Toyota mechanic would need the car to replicate the behavior, and I told her that could be quite a while, because it’s unpredictable.”
LeBlonde hung up, dissatisfied. The next morning, she got a call from the local dealership, saying that they had an opening for her to bring her car in.
“They said, ‘We hear that you are having a problem with your brakes,’” she recalled. “I did not take them up on this because it made me feel that they weren’t interested in the actual problem. I lost confidence in Toyota as being able to understand or admit what was really going on.”
LeBlonde was once a loyal Toyota customer. She can remember the day she bought the Corolla:
“I just marched right in on a July 4th weekend and bought it. Not a second thought. I was constantly convincing friends to buy a Toyota.”
LeBlonde sold the Corolla. She now drives a Honda Civic.
William O’Brien, Cincinnati, Ohio
Bill O’Brien’s 2009 Corolla appears to be a more extreme version of the condition that plagued LeBlonde’s 2006 Corolla. With a background in science, O’Brien made an Excel spreadsheet of his numerous vehicle unintended accelerations for easy reference. It details the date, time, mileage, weather conditions, road grade, duration and rpms of the event. O’Brien began dealing with engine surges in his 2009 Corolla in March 2010 and has experienced a total of 15 events through January 2012. His 2009 Corolla was recalled for the accelerator pedal shim; and the change from CTS to a Denso component. None of the recall remedies have made a difference in his vehicle’s performance. The incidents typically happen at low-speed, with his foot on the brake, upon cold start. Initially, the engine surged to about 2500 to 3,000 rpms during the UA event. O’Brien would hold firm on the brake, shift the vehicle from drive to neutral and back to drive again, and the engine surge would cease.
“The first time is happened was Easter Sunday, 2010, a month after recall to remove and trim the accelerator pedal,” he said. “The way the recall notice framed it, it occurred in vehicles with high mileages. I had 6,000-7,000 miles on my car. I didn’t think anything was going to come of it. I do know that I didn’t hit the wrong pedal.”
The last several events occurred in November and January in O’Brien’s driveway. These were the most extreme events, with the engine revving to 6,500 rpms.
Toyota and the dealership personnel have examined the vehicle and found nothing, O’Brien says.
“I’ve been through an arbitration and it was evident that it wasn’t going to make a difference. I can produce up to four witnesses to these events. But, none of it matters unless a Toyota technician sees it. I guess I’ll have to have someone from Toyota riding with me fulltime. Then they would have to move in with us, and God knows how much they eat,” he joked.