Makin’ It Fit, So We Can Acquit

We continue to see a mismatch between the facts of Toyota SUA and NHTSA’s representations.  And our level of concern continues to grow as the agency  makes public statements, issues reports and otherwise draws conclusions without presenting any supporting evidence.

Today, NHTSA Office of Defects Investigation Division Chief Jeffrey Quandt stood before the National Academies of Sciences panel looking into electronic throttle controls and told the room that Kevin Haggerty’s SUA event was caused by a sticky accelerator pedal. His incident is one of the flies in Toyota’s ointment, because the service technicians witnessed the vehicle racing in neutral. (Actually, Toyota service technicians have observed and – at times – replicated other SUA complaints – Haggerty’s incident has just been the most public.) To recap:

Kevin Haggerty, owner of a 2007 Avalon, experienced SUA multiple times; he did not have accessory floor mats, and the OE mats were secured in place.

Haggerty reported five SUA events. Several times, the vehicle accelerated without his foot on the gas pedal. The engine would return to idle after driving a few miles or after the Avalon shut down and restarted or was stopped and put into park. Haggerty’s vehicle was checked at the dealership, but they could find nothing wrong. According to his NHTSA complaint:

“Then on 12/28/09 I was driving to work on a major highway. The car began to accelerate without my foot on the gas pedal. As I pushed on the brake, the car continued to accelerate. At that time I was not able to stop my vehicle by pressing hard on the brake. The only way I was able to slow the car down was to put the car into neutral. I took the next exit, which was the exit for the Toyota dealership. I called the dealership and told the service manager to meet me outside because I was experiencing acceleration problems. I drove approximately 5 miles by alternating from neutral to drive and pressing very firmly on the brakes. As I pulled into the front of the dealership I put the car into neutral and exited the car. With the brakes smoking from the excessive braking and the car’s rpm’s racing the manager entered my car. He confirmed that the mats were properly in place and confirmed the rpm’s were very high.”

The Haggerty incident was notable because Toyota technicians witnessed the vehicle engine racing at full-throttle, in neutral, and found no mechanical causes of the incident were found.  Subsequent interviews with Mr. Haggerty revealed that the Toyota dealer contacted Toyota’s regional representative in Caldwell, NJ who later inspected the vehicle.  The details of this inspection were not provided to the owner.  However, Toyota Motor Sales authorized replacement of the throttle body and accelerator pedal assemblies and sensors and paid for the $1700 repairs and rental car costs. The owner was told by the Toyota dealer that the vehicle’s computer had stored no error codes and they were unsure whether the repairs would fix the vehicle.

Haggerty had what’s called a long duration event at high speed. A sticky pedal is a pedal that is slow to return to idle. Vehicle speed doesn’t suddenly increase with a sticky pedal – as Haggerty’s did.  In fact, on February 23, Toyota Motor Sales President Jim Lentz told the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that sticky pedals don’t cause high-speed events. Here’s the exchange between Rep. Bart Stupak and Lentz:

“REP STUPAK: Do you have any analysis, any evidence that sticky pedals can cause a sudden, unintended acceleration?

MR. LENTZ:  It depends on the definition of “sudden.”  If it means that you can be depressing a pedal, take your foot off the pedal and the car continues its speed, it does cause that.

REP. STUPAK:  Quoting your counsel, “typically does not translate into a sudden high-speed acceleration event” — sticky pedals.  So sticky pedals really isn’t doing anything about sudden high-speed —

MR. LENTZ:  Not for high speed.”

After Haggerty had his last SUA experience, ABC News spoke with the service manager at Muller Toyota in Clinton, New Jersey. Today, ABC News confirmed for the Safety Record Blog that the service manager stated that the pedal on Kevin Haggerty’s vehicle was examined and was not stuck or out of position.  The service manager also affirmed that he provided that information to NHTSA.

So why would Quandt say such a thing? Under Quandt, eight investigations were opened and quickly closed with no findings or a conclusion of pedal interference. There has been no serious, science-based examination of the potential for other non-mechanical causes. Unfortunately for NHTSA, the public record is fairly littered with examples of the agency re-arranging facts or misrepresenting data or persuading vehicle owners that what happened didn’t really happen.

When the agency denied the last Toyota SUA petition, it misrepresented owners’ complaints to buttress its belief that floor mat interference was to blame. In April 2009, Lexus Owner Jeffrey Pepski, asked the agency to re-open its investigation into SUA in Lexus ES350s. He experienced an SUA event while driving at high speed, in which the vehicle accelerated to 80 mph. Pepski tried pumping and pulling up the accelerator with his foot – to no avail.  Pepski’s Lexus was equipped with a standard carpet mat, not the all-weather variety said to trap accelerator pedals, and his efforts to pull up the pedal would have dislodged the floor mat. In the Petition Denial, NHTSA created a table of 10 consumer complaints that Pepski had submitted as evidence that other Lexus owners were experiencing SUA at high speeds for sustained periods.  However, the agency claimed that six of the complaints (Vehicle Owner Questionnaires – VOQs) were in fact related to floor mats.  NHTSA stated:

“Contrary to the petitioner’s contention, six of the VOQs were related to floor mat interference (four of the five that petitioner singled out as unrelated to floor mats were related to floor mats).”[1]

Because the VOQs actually suggested the opposite, Safety Research & Strategies submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to NHTSA in November 2009 requesting any additional documentation the agency might have to establish its conclusions that these were floor mat-related incidents. On January 28, NHTSA replied, referring SRS to the same information, now currently on its publicly available website:

“..we searched for and found no supplementary information regarding the ten complaints you cited on unwanted acceleration. If you want to view these ten complaints, go to the website identified above.”[2]

So, let’s look at the VOQs, here are three examples:

In its entirety, VOQ 10199857 says:

“I purchased 2007 Lexus ES 350 in December of 2006. Sometime in last month, when I was driving the vehicle on a highway, its brake stopped working all of a sudden, and started accelerating by itself. I looked at my foot wondering if my foot was on gas pedal, instead of brake pedal, but it was on brake pedal. I was in a total panic, but managed to drove [sic] the car away to the shoulder of the highway by putting the car in park mode. I thought I was dead at that moment. I am trying to sue the Lexus. I honestly believe that car will kill someone. Before starting a legal proceeding, my attorney sent a letter to Lexus headquarter, and was told that the vehicle had no problem, and that the cause was the floor mat. But, it was not. As I said earlier, I looked at my foot when the vehicle did not stop, and after I stopped the car, I carefully looked at both gas pedal and brake again. I am not blind. Have you seen any other complaints for similar problems? Please let me know. It will be really helpful for me to win the case. I am not trying to make money by suing Lexus, but trying to have Lexus recall all of its ES350 since it will kill someone. *jb”[3]

In NHTSA’s table it appears as: “Unsecured floor mat discovered and corrected during dealer inspection.”[4

In its entirety, VOQ 10203221 says:

“On two prior occasions the vehicle accelerated from speeds between 20-30 mph, to speeds up to 50-60 mph. On 9/11/07, the vehicle accelerated at speeds up to 80-90 mph. We are aware of the Lexus notification of floor mat interference, so we removed the mats after the first two times, but the last and most frightening, occurrence happened without the mat in the vehicle. The car had to be forced into park in order to slow it down to a halt. My wife was driving the vehicle at the time and she states she almost had several multiple car accidents while trying to stop the vehicle. I had the vehicle towed to the dealer and they said it’s the floor mat, before even driving the car. We won’t drive the car again until someone other than Lexus determines what the problem is. *tr”[5]

In ODI’s table, it appears as: “All-weather accessory floor mat improperly stacked on top of carpet mat.”[6]

In its entirety, VOQ 10230929 says:

“Reported: 27-may-2008 (incidence Memorial Day weekend 25 may 2008) problem: runaway acceleration: evidence of malfunctioning cruise control car was nearing end of 200 mile trip. Cruise control had been engaged on and off for last hour. Driver stopped at entrance onto old-designed fast-moving highway rte4) with old-fashioned short access and no breakdown lanes. Cruise control green light on, but system supposedly disengaged. Car began to exhibit strong engine noise and runaway acceleration. Driver shut off cruise control, passenger observed the light go off and then back on several times. Driver firmly stepped on brakes. The brakes smoked and smelled of burning. When car slowed down, driver pulled to small indentation at side and pressed ignition button for several seconds. Car stopped with jolt. Driver started car in park. Engine made same loud blow-out sound. Re-shut down car. Driver restarted car to move to exit about 50 yds ahead. Car began run-away acceleration again, driver repeated steps pushing hard on brakes (smell and smoke) and shutting car off by pressing ignition button. Off-duty police (chief of force) smelled brakes and said loud engine noise made car a hazard; tow driver would also testify to loud engine noise when car turned on again to be placed on his truck. Because spill of ice-coffee during incident, mats were inspected by both driver and passenger before car was towed. Both noted that mats were intact and in their proper place. Driver noted clips were in place. (the car was in compliance with Lexus recall of mats having been serviced two months prior to incident.) Improper mats are still Lexus stated cause; however, driver and passenger say this is not case. Cruise control malfunctioning seems likely cause of runaway-acceleration. While our dealer is responsive, national Lexus has been most neglectful; agent does not return calls; and this is almost three weeks after incident. *tr see also 10228954 &10229189 *dsy”[7]

In ODI’s table, it appears as: “All-weather accessory floor mat improperly stacked on top of carpet mat.”[8]

On May 5, 2009, about a week before Toyota would send a point-by-point response to Pepski’s detailed petition, one of Toyota’s Washington staffers, Chris Santucci sent an e-mail to colleague Takeharu Nishida. Santucci’s correspondence alerted Takeharu of his progress in the behind-the-scenes horse-trading with the agency. As characterized by Santucci, NHTSA was looking for a way out of yet another Lexus SUA investigation:

“For background, NHTSA did inspect the petitioner’s vehicle. While they did not see clearly the witness marks of the carpeted floor mat on the carpet in the forward, unhooked position, they do suspect that the floor mat was responsible for the petitioner’s issue.”[9]

“I have discussed our rebuttal with them, and they are welcoming of such a letter, They are struggling with sending an IR letter, because they shouldn’t ask us about floormat issues because the petitioner contends that NHTSA did not investigate throttle issues other than floor mat-related. So they should ask us for non-floor mat related reports, right? But they are concerned that if they ask for these other reports, they will have many reports that just cannot be explained, and since they do not think that they can explain them, they don’t really want them. Does that make sense? I think it is good news for Toyota,” Santucci wrote in his e-mail. [10]

(Jeff Pepski recently responded to this email at SRS’ request: “My incident occurred on February 3, 2009.  My petition to NHTSA was dated March 13, 2009 and I met with the NHTSA reps [Bill Collins and Stephen McHenry with the DOT] and Toyota rep [Mike Zarnecki, the Field Technical Specialist from the Lexus Central Area Office] on May 1, 2009.  Since no chain of evidence existed, the possibility of any observable witness marks as of May 1 would be remote and the level of reliability would be non-existent. All three parties were present when I asked Mike Zarnecki to demonstrate how the floor mats could have possibly caused the accelerator pedal to become entrapped.  After much manual manipulation of the floor mat, he was able to do show how it may occur.  At my request he pulled up and pushed down on the gas pedal; the floor mat immediately became free.  I explained that the SUA that I experienced did not cease after I had done the same while driving on February 3.  If the floor mat had entrapped the accelerator pedal as all three claimed, the vehicle would have stopped accelerating after dislodging the floor mat.  The SUA I experienced continued as the floor mat was not the cause.”)

This summer, NHTSA presented Congress with a preliminary report on Toyota EDR data, which purported to show that 60 percent of the incidents were the result of driver error. SRS recently obtained a copy of this report through a Freedom of Information Request. The data is rife with contradictions and inconsistencies; the sample incidents were assembled by convenience, rather than any scientific method. No seasoned crash investigator could conclude anything from these data – certainly not that Toyota electronics are exonerated.

We could go on and recount interviews with consumers who told us that NHTSA investigators dismissed their accounts of SUA incidents and suggested that they were confused, or their shoes were too big.

The agency continues to make assertions that contradict the public record without offering any additional, objective evidence in support. Investigators apparently believe that if they say it in public and put in a Powerpoint presentation, it becomes true by virtue of their status as employees of a federal agency. Show us facts, please. Explain your process. Proffer your evidence.

[1] DP09001; Denial of Defect Petition; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; October 27, 2009

[2] RE: Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request, 5 U.S.C. 552; Stanley Feldman; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; January 28, 2010

[3] ODI 10199857; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; July 3, 2007

[4] DP09001; Denial of Defect Petition; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; October 27, 2009

[5] ODI 10203221; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; September 11, 2007

[6] DP09001; Denial of Defect Petition; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; October 27, 2009

[7] ODI 10230929; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; May 25, 2008

[8] DP09001; Denial of Defect Petition; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; October 27, 2009

[9]Re: Defect Petition; Christopher Santucci; e-mail; Toyota;  May 5, 2009

[10] Re: Defect Petition; Christopher Santucci; e-mail; Toyota;  May 5, 2009