Product Liability

Unintentional acceleration problem is an old one for Toyota

Floor mats are behind Toyota’s most recent safety warning affecting some 3.8 million vehicles. But the problem isn’t a new one. A report in the New York Times says that both Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have known about the problem for more than two years. Toyota Motor Corp., according to the Times, has been investigating the potential for floor mats to interfere with the gas pedal since March of 2007. The problem has caused some vehicles to accelerate unintentionally, prompting Toyota to look for solutions. No recalls of the affected vehicles have been announced yet.

While a defective floor mat advisory may sound relatively harmless, the problem can turn into a deadly one for some drivers. Yesterday, we wrote about the death of four family members near San Diego, California on August 28. The family was driving a Lexus ES 350, a loaner car from their dealership, when the driver, Mark Saylor, called 911 to report that the vehicle was violently accelerating and he had no ability to brake. The runaway car launched off an embankment, rolled several times, and burst into flames, killing everyone inside. Witnesses said that the Lexus was weaving on the road and traveling over 120 mph when it left the road.

The complaints that prompted Toyota’s 2007 investigation of the floor mats and unintended acceleration problem came from the drivers of five Lexus ES 350s, the same model that Saylor was driving. After ruling out electronics as a cause of sudden acceleration, investigators analyzed the floor mat and accelerator pedal designs. They found that the gas pedal’s design allowed it to become jammed in the groove of the heavy all-weather floor mat if the mat wasn’t properly secured by its retaining hooks. If drivers placed the all-weather mats, which are optional accessories in many Lexus models, on top of the standard mats, the retaining hooks can’t be used. Toyota printed a written warnings on the rubber all-weather mats but they were small and easy to overlook.

The same safety report also determined that “With the engine throttle plate open, the vacuum power assist of the braking system cannot be replenished and the effectiveness of the brakes is reduced significantly.” The distance required to stop the vehicle went 200 feet to 1,000 feet. Instead of 30 pounds of pressure on the brake pedal, the driver had to use 150 pounds of force.

The ignition button also contributes to the dilemma of a runaway vehicle like the one Mark Saylor and his family experienced. Instead of a key ignition, Lexus cars use a start button. To turn off the engine of a Lexus during an emergency, the button must be pressed and held for 3 seconds – a safety feature that was not mentioned in the car manual before 2009 and a procedure that few Lexus owners know about.

Whatever defect caused Saylor to lose control of the Lexus that day, it seems likely he would have tried to stop the engine. Tragically, it seems equally likely that he had no idea how to do that.