Driver Error Likely Behind Many Toyota Crashes
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Now, an update on the investigation into the rash of Toyota and Lexus accidents that were initially blamed on sudden acceleration problems.
After analyzing dozens of data recorders in Toyota vehicles, U.S. safety regulators have found that some drivers who claimed their car suddenly surged out of control may have mistakenly floored the accelerator when they meant to hit the brakes.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's findings are preliminary, and they do not clear the carmaker. For its part, Toyota has long maintained that driver error may have contributed to many of the accidents.
For more, we're joined by Mike Ramsey, an automotive reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Ramsey, thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. MIKE RAMSEY (Automotive Reporter, Wall Street Journal): Thanks, Michele.
NORRIS: First, help me understand what NHTSA found and how they are able to determine that people were slamming on the accelerator when they meant to hit the brakes.
Mr. RAMSEY: Well, first, what happens when you crash a Toyota now is that there is a box that records things like how far the brake was depressed, how fast the vehicle was going, how wide open the throttle was and whether the airbag deployed, things like that.
This information NHTSA has been downloading from vehicles where people reported unintended acceleration and where they pressed the brake and were unable to stop the vehicle. So what you found was that in these cases, they went back and found not only did the vehicle have the throttle wide open, but there was no evidence that the brake was depressed when they crashed.
NORRIS: How many data recorders were analyzed? And of those, how many of these accidents were found to have been caused by driver error?
Mr. RAMSEY: Well, we have been saying several dozen, all of them that were -fit the criteria, were found to have the brake not depressed and the accelerator wide open. So 100 percent of the incidents where it fit that criteria, that's what was found.
NORRIS: One hundred percent?
Mr. RAMSEY: Yes.
NORRIS: It sounds like, upon hearing that, that the government might be on its way toward exonerating Toyota.
Mr. RAMSEY: Well, when it comes to incidents where people are claiming electronic throttle control, the government has already said they have no evidence of it. This set of data, what it does is it completes the other side of it, which is if it's not that, then what is it, right? It's probably driver error. So the government has been hesitant to say that so far.
And remember, there's some - there's a political issue here. Congress was really tough on NHTSA for kind of being asleep at the wheel with Toyota early on or maybe not being tough enough on them on earlier recalls. So they do not want to come back with some kind of mealy-mouthed answer that supports what Toyota has said all along.
So they want to be able to make sure that their data is very solid before they come back and say, you know, generally, Toyota is correct and there is no problem with the electronic throttle control.
NORRIS: You report on an interesting case study, there's one in particular where a woman insists that her foot was on the brake and not the accelerator. And yet, surveillance videos showed that the brake lights did not illuminate until after the car crash. Any explanation for that confusion? Because she seems to be convinced that her foot was in the right place.
Mr. RAMSEY: You know, the explanation I would give would be the one that would be the most logical that when you're in an intense, stressful situation, it's very difficult to reconstruct what happened in the event and that you can convince yourself of certain details. You know, and I think that that is what, in a court of law, automakers would argue and what, you know, the sensible thing is.
I totally understand the position of these people. And if you hear many of these anecdotes, it's incredibly compelling to hear them and all of their evidence. That said, when you have dozens of incidents that are similar where people say they were stepping on the brake and the car accelerated anyway and hit and that all of these incidents show virtually the same findings, that's difficult to believe that the computer was wrong and, you know, they had a special instance.
NORRIS: Mike Ramsey is an automotive reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Ramsey, thank you very much.
Mr. RAMSEY: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.