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Sudden Acceleration: Toyota’s History Of Covering Up Potential Safety Problems

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The Los Angeles Times has reported that Toyota has a history of delaying recalls and attempting to blame its own drivers rather than fix known safety problems in Toyota vehicles.

During a routine test on its Sienna minivan in April 2003, Toyota Motor Corp. engineers discovered that a plastic panel could come loose and cause the gas pedal to stick, potentially making the vehicle accelerate out of control.

The automaker redesigned the part and by that June every 2004 model year Sienna off the assembly line came with the new panel. Toyota did not notify tens of thousands of people who had already bought vans with the old panel, however.

It wasn’t until U.S. safety officials opened an investigation last year that Toyota acknowledged in a letter to regulators that the part could come loose and "lead to unwanted or sudden acceleration."

In January, nearly six years after discovering the potential hazard, the automaker recalled 26,501 vans made with the old panel.

In early November, I documents how Toyota had been ignoring the sudden acceleration defect for more than five years.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Toyota "kept a tight lid on disclosure of potential problems and attempted to blame human error in cases where owners claimed vehicle defects. Toyota has come under scrutiny from safety experts — and even federal safety regulators, who called Toyota’s public statements about the accelerator defect "inaccurate and misleading".

In the wake of a tragic sudden acceleration crash, the Los Angeles Times examined the ways that Toyota has death with safety problems in recent years:

    • The automaker knew of a dangerous steering defect in vehicles including the 4Runner sport utility vehicle for years before issuing a recall in Japan in 2004. But it told regulators no recall was necessary in the U.S., despite having received dozens of complaints from drivers. Toyota said a subsequent investigation led it to order a U.S. recall in 2005.

    • Toyota has paid cash settlements to people who say their vehicles have raced out of control, sometimes causing serious accidents, according to consumers and their attorneys. Other motorists who complained of acceleration problems with their vehicles have received buybacks under lemon laws.

    • Although the sudden acceleration issue erupted publicly only in recent months, it has been festering for nearly a decade. A computerized search of NHTSA records by The Times has found Toyota issued eight previous recalls related to unintended acceleration since 2000, more than any other automaker.

    • A former Toyota lawyer who handled safety litigation has sued the automaker, accusing it of engaging in a "calculated conspiracy to prevent the disclosure of damaging evidence" as part of a scheme to "prevent evidence of its vehicles’ structural shortcomings from becoming known" to plaintiffs lawyers, courts, NHTSA and the public.

Independent safety expert, Sean Kane of Safety Research & Strategies, has identified more than 2,100 sudden acceleration events. There are currently at least 10 lawsuits pending involving Toyota sudden acceleration claims, with two of those lawsuits seeking certification as a class action lawsuit.

Even though Toyota’s sudden acceleration problem only recently came to the public’s attention, Toyota has been quietly making sudden acceleration recalls for nearly a decade.

  • Two years ago, a NHTSA investigation found that Camry and Lexus ES gas pedals could be trapped by rubber all-weather floor mats (the same problem addressed by the current recall). Toyota recalled 55,000 vehicles, but its only repair was place a warning label on the underside of the mat.
  • In 2005, Toyota recalled more than 3,500 Lexus IS 250 vehicles because the gas pedal was likely to stick on a floor pad.
  • In 2006, Toyota recalled more than 360,000 Highlander and Lexus RX SUVs after complaints that an interior cover could interfere with the accelerator pedal.
  • In 2003, Toyota recalled 408 Toyota Celicas in Canada because of floor mat interference with the accelerator pedal.
  • Toyota has an ongoing Sienna recall to replace a hard plastic trim panel over the center consoles that could cause accelerator pedal entrapment. This Sienna recall came long after Toyota discovered the problem.

Toyota has a history of delaying the recall a safety defect until long after it had discovered the problem.

In 1994, NHTSA slapped Toyota with a $250,000 fine, at the time the agency’s second-largest, for providing misleading information about a fuel leak in Land Cruisers and waiting two years to undertake a recall to fix the problem. Toyota acknowledged that it failed to conduct a timely recall but denied withholding information from the agency.

A decade later, Toyota recalled about 330,000 vehicles in Japan after a 2004 crash there — caused by a broken steering linkage — seriously injured five people. The vehicle in the accident, a Hilux Surf, was sold in the U.S. as the 4Runner. Other truck models sold here, including the Toyota 4×4 and T100 pickups, also used the same linkage, a steering relay rod.

Despite that, the company told NHTSA in an October 2004 letter that it would not conduct a U.S. recall because it had not received information here indicating a problem with the part.

Documents entered in four lawsuits filed in Los Angeles this year, however, show that Toyota had received numerous consumer complaints dating from 2000 and had replaced dozens of the parts under warranty. The documents also show that Japanese police, in an investigation of the defect, said that Toyota employees had known about the problem since 1992 and should have initiated a recall immediately.

In September 2005, Toyota recalled nearly 1 million vehicles in the U.S. to replace the part, its second-largest campaign.

Toyota delays have deadly consequences. Zackary Audulewicz of Ila, Georgia paid the price for Toyota’s delays. The 20-year-old was driving a Toyota 4×4 in August 2003 when the pickup lost control after a "pop" and a "spark".

"I feel like they knew about the problem long before the recall," said Don Audulewicz, Zackary’s father and one of the plaintiffs in the suits. "I can’t understand why whoever was making decisions at Toyota would do that."

Some sudden acceleration events do not result in a collision, but leave Toyota owners unwilling to drive a dangerous and defective vehicle. Some Toyota owners have received "lemon-vehicle" buybacks, but many are left with little recourse.

Some motorists who have confronted Toyota about safety issues say that Toyota has hidden information from them.

In January, Jeffrey Pepski, a financial consultant in suburban Minneapolis, took his 2007 Lexus ES 350 to the dealer after it accelerated out of control on a Twin Cities freeway, reaching 80 miles per hour.

Toyota sent an expert to examine the car Feb. 3 and download electronic data stored on the vehicle’s computers. When Pepski asked for a copy of the data, he was refused.

"They said it was proprietary," Pepski recalled.

He filed a defect petition with NHTSA, and the dealer allowed Pepski to trade in the sedan for a sport utility vehicle. The Lexus ES was not branded a lemon and was resold in Minnesota, records show.

How Toyota handles requests like Pepski’s has frustrated investigators and vehicle owners who want to get information contained on computers in their vehicles.

Nearly every car produced today contains an event data recorder to store at least several seconds of vital information, including vehicle speed, engine speed, brake pedal application, accelerator pedal application, etc. However, Toyota’s data recorders are "extremely difficult" for non-Toyota personnel to read.

Toyota says it has only one device in the U.S. that can read the data. An operating manual for the device, a copy of which was reviewed by The Times, indicates that it takes two passwords to operate.

Toyota has said that it will not honor data recorder readout requests from individuals or attorneys.

I have been chronicling Toyota’s many ongoing problems here for months. I continue to be appalled by Toyota’s conduct.

Toyota denied there was any accelerator problem for more than five years. Even after a documented sudden acceleration crash that killed four people, Toyota continued to make "inaccurate and misleading" statements about its accelerator defect.

Toyota finally (but reluctantly) acknowledged the problem and issued a massive recall of its vehicles. However, many independent safety experts said Toyota’s recall did not go far enough. Even Time magazine said Toyota’s recall was not sufficient and would not end the sudden acceleration problem. Consumer Reports found that Toyota had far more sudden acceleration events than any other automaker. Sean Kane — an independent safety expert with Safety Research & Strategies — has identified more than 2,100 separate Toyota sudden acceleration events.

Toyota’s sudden acceleration problem was not Toyota’s only issue this year, just the most publicized. Toyota’s problems actually ran much deeper. Toyota was forced to recall thousands of its Tundra pickup trucks for corrosion and rust damage. The federal government is investigating another electronic engine control problem that causes Toyota vehicles to stall out — literally cutting off power to the engine. Toyota is also under investigation for deaths caused by relay rod failures in Toyota pickup trucks.

Perhaps most telling, a former attorney for Toyota dropped off on the steps of a federal courthouse boxes of documents that Toyota had improperly (perhaps illegally) withheld in lawsuits across the country.

How has Toyota gotten away with such egregious conduct for so long? Are there two sets of rules in this country — one set for powerful corporations and one set for regular people like you and me?

Imagine that you had a dangerous hole in your front yard. When confronted by safety authorities, you simply said, there’s no hole there… and if there is one, it’s not really that dangerous. Would city safety officials just so "ok" and let you off the hook?

What if you knew about the hole and didn’t warn visitors? What if someone fell into that hole and was hurt or killed? Could you tell authorities there wasn’t really a hole there? Could you tell them that the victim must have been distracted or not paying attention when he fell into the hole that wasn’t there?

Could you or I get away with such conduct? Why do we continually let giant corporations get away with hurting or killing the very people that buy their products. It is time we hold car makers and other corporations accountable for their conduct. It is time every one — rich, poor, old, young — plays under the same set of rules.

Until Toyota finally creates a solution that actually fixes the problem, all Toyota drivers must be prepared. You can learn how to stop your vehicle if it experiences the sudden acceleration problem at this post.

You can learn more about the Toyota sudden acceleration defect by reading these previous reports of Toyota’s sudden acceleration problem:

Toyota Sudden Acceleration Recall: Company Vows To "Make Better Cars"

Toyota Sudden Acceleration: Safety Experts Want Toyota Recall Expanded

Toyota Sudden Acceleration Recall: Company Focuses On Wrong Problem

Toyota Recall Won’t Fix Accelerator Problem

Toyota Denied Sudden Acceleration Problem For More Than 5 Years

"Inaccurate and Misleading" Statements On Toyota Sudden Acceleration Problem

Toyota Sudden Acceleration: Case Is Not Closed

Safety Group Responds To Toyota On Sudden Acceleration Defect

Toyota Has More Troubles Than Just Sudden Acceleration

You can learn more about Toyota’s dangerous sudden acceleration defect at our auto safety blog or by visiting our web site.

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3 Comments

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  1. Mike Bryant says:
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    Toyota is really playing with lives here. Seems to be a good product overall, makes you wonder why they would do this to the name and most importantly the customer.

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    Why would Toyota do this to its customers? Well, it isn’t a new concept for this company. Toyota has been stepping on its customers for more than a decade. It has been using its corporate money to pay internet “Complaint Removers” to screen what is said about it online. Toyota has tracked the most vocal Toyota owners, particularly those who attempt to create a database of similarly-affected vehicle owners. It has blamed customers for major and inherent engine problems for over a decade!

    It will take determined Toyota vehicle owners and their advocates to overcome Toyota’s public deception. The truth must be told!

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    What else is Toyota doing to deceive the public? Well, it is claiming to be such a “Green” company. In fact, the Toyota vehicles with the engine oil sludge problem are actually burning an inordinate amount of oil. They are the opposite of “Green” vehicles as they fail to pass the vehicle emission testing. Is this common knowledge? No, because Toyota has done a good job of keeping the truth hidden, IMO. We are assured to maintain our dependence on foreign oil as long as these Toyota sludgemobiles are being produced. Was the problem solved in 2002? No, not according to countless Toyota owners!