Lexus RX Floor Mat Recall: NHTSA’s House of Cards Adds a New Floor

An examination of NHTSA records surrounding a June recall for floor mat interference in 2010 Lexus RX350 vehicles shows that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration used mischaracterized data to buttress its request that Toyota recall the floor mats. Further, NHTSA ignored obvious clues that there might be an electronic root cause for the unintended acceleration complaints consumers filed with the agency.

These documents affirm the pattern that has characterized NHTSA’s Toyota Unintended Acceleration investigations – both informal and official -- since 2004:

  1. Dismiss the consumer’s description of the event, unless it conforms to the agency’s presumption of driver error or mechanical interference.
  2. Accept the explanations of the automaker or dealership of driver error or mechanical interference as completely accurate – even in the absence of any empirical evidence to support the contention.
  3. Dismiss any evidence of an electronic cause
  4. Settle for a limited, ineffective recall.
  5. Wait for another high-profile incident, consumer petition or accumulation of complaints to repeat the process

SRS has been examining the factual underpinnings of NHTSA’s actions in Toyota Unintended Acceleration since 2009. As we have in the past, we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for all records related to Toyota’s most recent floor mat recall. We received 58 pages of documents, some of which were redacted under FOIA exemptions for confidential business information, personal identifying information and sections deemed “deliberative process.”

As we don’t know what information lies behind the redactions, we cannot assess the totality of the evidence behind NHTSA’s decision to seek a floor mat recall. However, what the unredacted portions show is there is scant evidence of a widespread floor mat interference problem and there is even less logic in the complaints NHTSA claims support its argument that a problem with the mats exists. But, there is much more evidence in the narratives of consumer complaints suggesting electronic causes of UA in 2010 Lexus RX 350.

The Pedal Error Error

If the Toyota Unintended Acceleration has taught us anything, it’s the importance of examining NHTSA’s process before accepting its conclusions. The authority of the federal government automatically confers, in large measure, a public (including the mainstream media) acceptance of its pronouncements of scientific certitude. Few take the time to study their foundations. To this end, SRS has devoted more time and resources to obtaining the agency’s original source documents, data and communications around investigations, rulemakings and NHTSA-sponsored reports than we care to count. We have filed numerous Freedom of Information Act requests in pursuit of these informational bases.

Another thing we have learned: NHTSA really doesn’t want the public to know how it does what it does. Our FOIA requests have morphed into FOIA lawsuits (three and counting), as the agency either denies us information that is public or claims to have none, even when the crumbs NHTSA’s FOIA staff toss to us show unequivocally that, in fact, they do have the information.

And that brings us to Pedal Application Errors, NHTSA’s last nail in the Electronically-Caused UA coffin. This report made a number of strong claims regarding who is likely to make a pedal application error and how it is likely to occur. They do not bode well for any woman of a certain age who has the misfortune to be behind the wheel of an electronically caused UA. The report’s writers based on a variety of data sources, including crashes from the Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey (MVCCS), the North Carolina state crash database, a media review of pedal misapplication news stories and the insights garnered from a panel of rehabilitation specialists. Naturally, we wanted to look at all these data, and we requested them.

The response from the government, to put it kindly, was less than complete. NHTSA claimed that it didn’t have any of the underlying data, except the list of crashes from the MVCCS. It sent us the transcript of the one-and-a-half day meeting of rehabilitation specialists and Dr. Richard Schmidt, that prodigious peddler of the all-purpose, wholly unsupported and unscientific pedal misapplication theory the auto industry – and NHTSA – loves.

Toyota: The Other Numbers

This morning National Public Radio reported Toyota sold 5 million vehicles in the last six months.  These strong sales numbers mean the company may be poised to regain the number one automaker slot from GM.  This talk of Toyota numbers had us here at Safety Research & Strategies looking at some other data -- complaints involving Toyota unintended acceleration and what’s been reported publicly in the last year.

And we would be remiss if we failed to note Toyota’s latest directive to the press about how to properly address Safety Research & Strategies president Sean Kane.  But first, the numbers:  We reviewed unintended acceleration incidents involving Toyota vehicles reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) between June 1, 2011 and July 17, 2012.  To identify these reports, we examined the NHTSA data for all consumer complaints containing keywords related to UA that were submitted during that time period. We then reviewed each complaint record to determine if it described a UA incident. So here they are:

- 368 total incidents

- 36 involved vehicles described as having had at least one UA recall remedy performed prior to the incident.

-  95 reported injuries; none of these incidents resulted in a fatality.

So what do we make of this?  Despite the Very Important Scientists and the Secretary of Transportation LaHood’s proclamation that “The verdict is in” and “There is no electronic-based cause for unintended high-speed acceleration in Toyotas. Period,” consumers are still taking the time to report their experience to the government – and many report incidents that don’t seem to be explained by floor mats, “sticky” pedals, or driver error.  You can read them here.

Why Toyota Has a Whisker Across its Bumper

When you’ve shelled out big bucks for a message, the dissenters have to be squashed – and fast. Yesterday, Toyota public relations rapid response team tried to bring the Toyota Unintended Acceleration (UA) problem back into its multi-million-dollar corral at the There’s Nothing to See Here, Folks Ranch.

Mike Michels, Vice President for External Communications of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., wrote an editorial, in response to a well-reported and written story by the Huffington Post’s Sharon Silke Carty about one of the most significant physical findings of the NASA Engineering Safety Center’s (NESC) study of the electronic causes of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles: tin whiskers. Tin whiskers are crystalline structures that emanate from tin and other alloys used as solder on printed circuit boards. These nearly microscopic metal hairs can bridge circuits, leading to electrical shorts and significant malfunctions. They have caused failures at nuclear power plants and medical devices and downed satellites. While we don’t believe that they are the cause of UA in all Toyota vehicles. Clearly, tin whiskers have been strongly implicated as a cause of UA in some Toyota vehicles.

Government Officials Video Electronic Unintended Acceleration in Toyota: NHTSA Hides Information, SRS Sues Agency for Records

In mid-May, two engineers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation witnessed a 2003 Prius, owned by a high-ranking government official, accelerate on its own several times while on a test drive with the owner, without interference from the floor mat, without a stuck accelerator pedal or the driver’s foot on any pedal.

“They said: Did you see that?” the Prius owner recalled in a sworn statement.  “This vehicle is not safe, and this could be a real safety problem.”

They videotaped these incidents, excited that, at long last, they had caught a Toyota in the act of unintended acceleration, with a clear electronic cause. The engineers downloaded data from the vehicle during at least one incident when the engine raced uncommanded in the owner’s garage and admonished the owner to preserve his vehicle, untouched, for further research.

But three months later, the agency decided that there was no problem at all. The agency thanked the Prius owner for his time and said that it was not interested in studying his vehicle. This critical discovery was never made public. The agency did not even put this consumer complaint into its complaint database, until months later, at the request of Safety Research & Strategies.

Today, for the second time in as many months, SRS sued NHTSA for documents, alleging that NHTSA has improperly withheld material that has vital public interest.

Nine Recalls, Ten Investigations and Toyota Unintended Acceleration Continues

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.

    Safety Research & Strategies Takes DOT and NHTSA Transparency Battle to Court; Sues for Toyota Investigation Documents

    WASHINGTON, D.C. – Safety Research & Strategies, a Massachusetts safety research firm that advocates for consumers on safety matters, sued the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration today over the release of Toyota Unintended Acceleration investigation documents.

    The civil action, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Civil Action No. 11-2165), alleges that the U.S. Department of Transportation and NHTSA violated the Freedom of Information Act by withholding public records involving an unintended acceleration incident reported by a 2007 Lexus RX owner in Sarasota Florida, and requests the court to order their release.

    “One of President Obama’s first acts was to issue an Executive Order on transparency and open government, pledging a commitment to creating ‘an unprecedented level of openness in government,’” says SRS founder and President Sean E. Kane. “The DOT and NHTSA have pledged transparency but have consistently kept vital information from the public.  The agency’s numerous investigations into Toyota Unintended Acceleration have been characterized by continued secrecy, preventing a full accounting of their activities and the complete replication of their analyses by independent parties.  This lawsuit asks the court to compel the release of documents that are relevant to a significant safety recall.”

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