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Drivers At Fault In So-Called Sudden Acceleration Toyotas, NHTSA Says

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Wrecked Toyota Prius owned by Elizabeth James, photo by Ted James, from Houston Press

Wrecked Toyota Prius owned by Elizabeth James, photo by Ted James, from Houston Press

Despite ominous news reports of cars careening out of control, there's no substitute for data. And now it looks like many reported cases of so-called "sudden acceleration" in Toyotas are actually due to driver error.

That's the preliminary conclusion coming from investigators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) who analyzed dozens of event-data recorders, or "black boxes," from Toyota models that had crashed.

Black box: Accleration, not braking

The recorders showed that despite drivers' claims that they were pressing the brakes as hard as they could, in fact the accelerators were floored and the brakes were never applied.

That is exactly what happened in the March crash of a 2005 Toyota Prius in the New York City suburb of Harrison, N.Y. There, a 56-year-old housekeeper swore she was braking as hard as she could when the car raced across a busy road, slamming into a stone wall.

In that case, the NHTSA statement all but used the words driver error, saying that the car's onboard computer systems "indicated there was no application of the brakes, and the throttle was fully open."

We've seen this before

The latest conclusions, reported by the Wall Street Journal but not officially confirmed by the agency, involved data recorders selected at random by the agency, not Toyota [NYSE:TM].

The NHTSA has not yet issued a formal statement, saying it will wait to complete a longer study before commenting. But the conclusions are not unexpected among auto-safety experts. Few believe that "sudden acceleration" in the Prius or any other car is possible.

Back in 1989, the agency concluded that drivers were also at fault in so-called "sudden acceleration" cases involving Audi 5000 sedans. That was three years after a notorious documentary.

Misfiring neurons

But how can a driver believe she is braking when in fact she has the accelerator floored? The University of California-Los Angeles professor Richard Schmidt, who teaches psychology, writes, "The trouble, unbelievable as it may seem, is that [it] is very often caused by drivers who press the gas pedal when they intend to press the brake."

The culprit is "noisy neuromuscular processes," in which a limb does something slightly different from what the brain has asked it to do.  In this case, the driver's foot may extend at a different angle than the body expects.

Compounding the problem

Panic then exacerbates the situation, with drivers pressing even harder on their "brake" pedals. Which of course keeps the accelerator floored and often leads to a crash.

That said, a handful of cases may have been due to oversize or improperly fitted floor mats in Toyota and Lexus vehicles. The company is now working through millions of vehicles to shorten and modify their accelerator pedals to alleviate the potential for such a problem.

That was the conclusion of the investigation into a notorious crash last August, in which a California Highway Patrol officer and three other passengers were killed when their Lexus accelerated out of control, crashed, flipped over, and burned.

That case is the only one out of more than 3,000 complaints in which the NHTSA has concluded the vehicle was at fault.

[WSJ.com via Fox]

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Comments (10)
  1. Wait, I'm confused...the accident with the CHP was due to faulty floor mats? My understanding of that incident (correct me if I'm wrong), is that the car was traveling for quite some time before the crash. Are we to believe that a CHP officer (who had 19 years on the job, I believe) wouldn't have figured out that the floor mat is the problem? And if the floor mat wasn't the problem in that crash, what was? I am sure that the scenario described above is possible, but it certainly doesn't pass the sniff test....
     
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  2. "The car was traveling for some time before the crash ..."
    The mat didn't cause any problems before the crash.
    "Are we to believe that a CHP officer..."
    I don't believe that they have training about floor mat.
     
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  3. I recall a situation I had when I started driving. I had the bad habit to brake with my left foot on automatics and once when driving a manual, I found that my brakes 'failed'. Thank God I had the presence to look down to see I was pressing the clutch to the floor, not the brake.
     
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  4. I had a problem once with the floor mat on my Dad's 95 Saturn once. It was immediately obvious, but resolvable only by getting out of the car and re-aligning the mat. I suppose if the mat shifted during a long trip you would be screwed, at least as far as braking. On this Lexus crash we are to believe the gas pedal was being held down by the floor mat while simultaneously the brake was being held up?
     
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  5. Uh, John, maybe you honestly missed the third graf of the WSJ story, or maybe you intentionally overlooked it, but you might want to re-read this:
    "But the findings—part of a broad, ongoing federal investigation into Toyota's recalls—don't exonerate the car maker from two known issues blamed for sudden acceleration in its vehicles: "sticky" accelerator pedals that don't return to idle and floor mats that can trap accelerators to the floor."
     
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  6. Hello. I have owned 2 Toyotas in the past (Toyota Corona models, one a sedan, the other a wagon, both "stick shift" models) I found in both cases that the pedals were: A) Too small for American feet and B) Placed too close together. I would suggest that big feet, big or wide shoes might be a contributing factor, and the fix would be the make the pedals larger and place them further apart. I currently own a Ford Focus wagon, stick shift, that has the same problem, pedals too small and placed too closely together. I have to really think and keep this in mind when driving the car, especially with my "size 11" shoes. . .
     
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  7. So essentially Toyota drivers are either secretly suicidal or so stupid that they accelerate at full speed into walls and other cars. Drivers of Dodge's, BMW's, Honda's, and all other automakers are not suicidal and are intelligent.
     
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  8. Very great article here in your blog, useful contents
    Thank you very much
    Best regards
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  9. Thanks for a great site.. well written story!
     
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  10. NTSA has ignored a possible failure mode, namely that the ECM computer froze in the full acceleration state. When frozen, the computer does not write log entries and ignores inputs.
    Most computer users are familiar with the failure.
    Let's fix this problem !
    Drivers need some safe way to stop the car.
    A safety switch that kills the ignition or fuel supply may give an unfortunate driver a chance to provide.
    Are regulations required ?
     
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