A Defect Remedy Delayed?

Well, we guess that the Christmas bonuses at Toyota are going to be a wee bit smaller this year, since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration pocketed about 12 hours of profit from the automotive giant for failing to launch a timely recall for flying floor mats in the 2010 Lexus RX 350.

Yesterday, Toyota agreed to settle the government’s claim that it failed to file a Part 573 report to the government within the mandatory five days after discovering a defect requiring a recall for $17.35 million. According to the settlement agreement, Toyota admitted to NHTSA that it knew of 63 alleged incidents of possible floor mat pedal entrapment in Model Year 2010 Lexus RX models since 2009.

That brings the Total Timeliness Simoleans (TTS) Toyota has paid to NHTSA in two years to more than $66 million. Now, Toyota may be setting all kinds of NHTSA civil penalty records, but when one considers that the company reportedly posted a $3.2 billion profit in just the third quarter, one realizes, that by any-pain-in-the-pocketbook standard, this fine ain’t nothing.

In a statement dripping with gravitas, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said: “Every moment of delay has the potential to lead to deaths or injuries on our nation’s highways.”

This fine stems from a NHTSA-influenced floor mat interference recall last summer involving 2010 Lexus RX350 vehicles. In May 2012, the agency’s Office of Defects Investigation asked Toyota to review nine Vehicle Owner Questionnaires that indicated a floor mat entrapment problem for the 2010 RX. Toyota then reviewed its records for “additional reports that could indicate circumstances that may be consistent with potential floor mat entrapment.” On June 22, the automaker presented to ODI cases in which “potential floor mat entrapment was possible or alleged to have occurred in the subject,” including a timeline when each of the reports was received,” according to Toyota. On June 29, Toyota announced its 11th recall related to unintended acceleration, for alleged pedal entrapment by the All-Weather Floor Mat, involving the 2010 Lexus RX350 2010 and RX450 H vehicles.

As we at SRS like our information unfiltered, we submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the investigatory documents that led to this recall. Despite a fair number of redactions, the public portions of the documents showed that NHTSA mischaracterized the data and ignored obvious clues that there might be an electronic root cause.

The foundation of ODI’s inquiry was an unknown number of redacted Early Warning Reports (EWR), nine Vehicle Owner Questionnaires, and four complaints submitted by Toyota as part of Recall Query10-003, in which the agency purported to examine whether the automaker had construed unintended acceleration too narrowly in two previous UA recalls.

SRS found that ODI’s coding standards were – shall we say, generous. Among the public complaint data, two drivers out of the 13 reported straight out that they saw the mat obstruct the pedal. And the other nine? ODI counted six incidents as a floor mat entrapment, if the Lexus dealership or Toyota claimed this to be the cause, even though there was no affirmative evidence of it, even if floor mat entrapment was highly unlikely if the incident occurred as the driver described it – such as alleged floor mat entrapment upon ignition, when the driver’s foot starts on the brake – and even if the driver steadfastly maintained floor mats had nothing to do with it. For example, ODI 10312842:

“We had a 2010 Lexus 350RX. In Aug 2009, I was driving home and the car accelerated up to about 60 mph. My husband was in the car with me. We were trying everything to stop the car. We finally got it stopped. It did it a second time with my husband driving the next day. We know without a doubt that it was not the floormat, which that is what Lexus blamed it on. I would not drive that car again.”

In three of the incidents, drivers reported that the brake failure light or other dashboard lights illuminated. Explain how the floor mat makes the Malfunction Indicator Light go on, again?

At the time of the recall, the agency had received more than 60 unintended acceleration VOQ reports from owners of 2007-2012MY Lexus RX350 vehicles complaining about surges, lunges, accelerations in parking maneuvers and at highway speeds. The most serious incident was a fatal crash. From ODI 10401384:

“In a 2010 Lexus RX 350 my grandmother was a passenger in which the vehicle was at a stop waiting for an apartment complex security gate to open.  The car suddenly accelerated to speeds above 60 mph.  The vehicle crashed through two apartment complex security gates, went airborne over a busy street and came to rest against the side of a building.  To our horror, my grandmother perished in the accident.  We are awaiting the information from the black box.  I hesitate so say too much because we are still in the decision making process of how/if to proceed regarding litigation.  Do not purchase, drive or ride in one of these vehicles. *TR”

Naturally, this was not among the incidents investigated as part of the NHTSA’s determination to ensure that the world is protected from the scourge of rubber floor mats.

And those two reports to NHTSA that actually alleged floor mat entrapment? They were from 2009.  So, if we want to talk delays, why did NHTSA wait three years to investigate? How many moments does that add up to, Administrator Strickland?

For more background on Lexus floor mats of destruction see:

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

Toyota and the Case of the Electronic Floor Mat Entrapment