RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
As NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.
FRANK LANGFITT: In the summer of 2005, Jordan Zibran(ph), a retired lawyer, was backing his Toyota Camry out of his driveway in Phoenix. He says his foot was on the brake. Suddenly the car accelerated.
JORDAN ZIBRAN: It all happened in a matter of seconds. It's a total loss of control.
LANGFITT: The Camry smashed into a utility box in his neighbor's driveway. Zibran filed a complaint that year with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. He says the agency labeled the case ambiguous and declined to investigate further. Zibran says Toyota dismissed his concerns with talking points that explained little.
ZIBRAN: Toyota was totally arrogant.
LANGFITT: Unwanted accelerations plagues many car makers but safety analysts say Toyota has racked up more cases that its fair share. David Champion runs Consumer Reports' auto test division. He says that for the 2008 model year, Toyota had 41 percent of all complaints but just 16 percent of the market.
DAVID CHAMPION: I think there was a lot of information out there even two or three years ago that there was something not quite right with Toyota and the unintended acceleration.
LANGFITT: Unidentified Man: 911 emergency, what are you reporting?
LANGFITT: Unidentified Man #2: We are in trouble, we can't, there is no brake.
LANGFITT: David Champion of Consumer Reports says the car company and the government should have acted sooner.
CHAMPION: I think both Toyota and NHTSA should have been more diligent in looking at the complaints on their database. It's just a shame that it takes tragic accident like happened in San Diego to bring attention to a problem like this.
LANGFITT: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration denies it dropped the ball. The agency says safety is its top priority, and that it reads every complaint within one business day of arrival. Yesterday, Jim Lentz, who runs Toyota in the U.S., held a conference call. So I asked him: Do you think that Toyota dealt with this problem promptly?
JIM LENTZ: I think we did. I mean if you look at the whole issue of unintended acceleration, it's really a very, very broad issue. We have been investigating it for a long period of time. It's very complex, it's very rare, and it's very intermittent.
LANGFITT: Lentz says figuring out why a car suddenly accelerates is not as easy as you might think. Take the pedal problem. The company eventually determined accelerators were sticking because of moisture and wear. But Lentz says testing cars where that happened was difficult.
LENTZ: By the time that vehicle arrived at the dealership, the moisture had already evaporated and the pedal was no longer having this sticky situation.
LANGFITT: Lentz says he thinks Toyota has solved the acceleration problem with its recalls, but not everyone's convinced. Remember Jordan Zibran? He says when his car went out of control, the pedal didn't stick, nor did it get trapped in a floor mat.
ZIBRAN: I don't expect this problem is going to go away.
LANGFITT: Sean Kane is founder of Safety Research and Strategies. It's an advocacy group that has studied the Toyota situation closely. Kane thinks some other electronic problem with Toyota vehicles is also causing unintended acceleration. But he acknowledges he can't quite put his finger on it.
SEAN KANE: We will continue to see incidents occur, and I anticipate that we will see additional recalls as the year progresses.
LANGFITT: Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.
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