NHTSA Denies Latest Toyota SUA Petition: Floor Mats to Blame

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has denied the latest petition for a defect investigation into Sudden Unintended Acceleration in Lexus ES350 vehicles, saying that Toyota has responded to the problem, by recalling 3.8 million floor mats, earlier this month.

“Except insofar as the petitioner's contentions relate to that recall, the factual bases of the petitioner's contentions that any further investigation is necessary are unsupported. In our view, additional investigation is unlikely to result in a finding that a defect related to motor vehicle safety exists or a NHTSA order for the notification and remedy of a safety-related defect as alleged by the petitioner at the conclusion of the requested investigation. Therefore, in view of the need to allocate and prioritize NHTSA's limited resources to best accomplish the agency's safety mission, the petition is denied. This action does not constitute a finding by NHTSA that a safety-related defect does not exist. The agency will take further action if warranted by future circumstances.”

To date, SRS has documented 16 deaths and 237 injuries related to Toyota Sudden Unintended Acceleration in the last six years. The most recent crash in August claimed the lives of a California Highway Patrolman and three of his family members, after the 2009 Lexus loaner he had been driving sped out of control and crashed on a Santee highway.

NHTSA’s denial of the latest petition asking for a probe into Toyota SUA problems beyond the floormats was submitted by Jeffery Pepski, of Plymouth, Minn. who was able to keep his 2007 Lexus from crashing as it sped under its own command for several miles one February evening, until suddenly stopping. But the incident was so disturbing, he refused to drive the vehicle again and filed a detailed petition to the agency in March, describing his nearly uncontrollable drive home, reaching speeds of almost 80 miles per hour. Applying the brakes with all the force he could muster, Pepski was able to slow the vehicle to 40 mph.

In his original complaint to the agency, Pepski noted: “I alternated between pumping the accelerator pedal and pulling up on it from the underside with my right foot as it became clear that the throttle was stuck in an open position. The vehicle continued to speed back up to over 65 mph with less pressure on the brake pedal.”

Pepski tried pressing the ignition button, and shifting the vehicle into neutral, without bringing the event to an end. Suddenly, the acceleration stopped. Toyota chalked it up to a misplaced floor mat, and denied Pepski’s request that it buy back the vehicle. In May, NHTSA and a Toyota representative inspected Pepski’s vehicle and concluded that Pepski’s OE carpet mat had entrapped the pedal.

Pepski was not persuaded:

“I was trapped in a runaway vehicle,” Pepski told SRS. “I was able to push down on the accelerator as well as push up the accelerator with my foot. If the floor mat had been the cause, I would have dislodged it and the acceleration I was experiencing would have gone away and that didn’t happen.”

He asked the Toyota representative to demonstrate how the floor mat could encroach upon the gas pedal – and remain there while a driver pushed and pulled the pedal.

“They couldn’t demonstrate that,” Pepski says. “If they can’t duplicate it, they say it didn’t happen, but computer glitches in cars can happen, just like they happen on your home computer. Glitches happen all of the time. Most have no serious consequences, but some do.”

Pepski’s petition raised seven issues in its request to broaden a 2007 Lexus SUA Preliminary Evaluation, which also closed with a finding that accessory all-weather floor mats were to blame. (Pepski’s vehicle did not have all-weather floor mats.) His points ranged from questioning if NHTSA addressed the proper corporate entity in Preliminary Evaluation PE07-016; to Toyota’s assessment of the defect; to questioning if the vehicle even met federal motor vehicle safety standards governing accelerator and brake systems.

In its denial, NHTSA responded to each of Pepki’s issues, dismissing them as incorrect or misguided. The agency said that Toyota vehicles complied with all relevant FMVSSs, that its investigation of drivers who complained of SUA events revealed that the problem was due to a misplaced floor mat and that Toyota was responding with its floor mat recall. The agency took pains to chide Pepski for confusing Toyota’s Brake Assist system referenced in the Owner's Manual with the brake power assist system. The latter “is a computer controlled automobile braking technology that increases braking pressure in an emergency situation (e.g., crash avoidance braking).”

Although NHTSA and the automaker have tried to close the book on SUA, it is unlikely that the incidences – or the questions about electronic glitches in its electronic throttle control and brake systems will stop. Meanwhile, owners wait for Toyota’s latest countermeasure after alerting owners to remove floormats in more than 3 million models including the following:

  • 2007 – 2010 Camry
  • 2005 – 2010 Avalon
  • 2004 – 2009 Prius
  • 2005 – 2010 Tacoma
  • 2007 – 2010 Tundra
  • 2007 – 2010 ES350
  • 2006 – 2010 IS250 and IS350

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