More than 1,000 Toyota and Lexus owners have reported since 2001 that their vehicles suddenly accelerated on their own, in many cases slamming into trees, parked cars and brick walls, among other obstacles, a Los Angeles Times review of federal records has found.
The crashes resulted in at least 19 deaths and scores of injuries over the last decade, records show, which federal regulators say is far more than any other automaker has experienced.
Owner complaints helped trigger at least eight investigations into sudden acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the last seven years. Toyota recalled fewer than 100,000 vehicles in response to two of those probes and the federal agency closed six other cases without finding a defect.
But those investigations systematically excluded or dismissed the majority of complaints by owners that their Toyota and Lexus vehicles had suddenly accelerated, sharply narrowing the scope of the probes, the Times investigation revealed.
Federal officials eliminated broad categories of sudden acceleration complaints, including cases in which drivers said they were unable to stop runaway cars using their brakes, incidents of unintended accelerations that lasted longer than a few seconds and reports in which owners failed to identify the possible causes of the problem.
The exclusions were used by NHTSA officials as a rationale to close at least five of the investigations without finding any defect, because – with fewer incidents to consider – the agency concluded there were not enough reported problems to warrant further inquiry.
Meanwhile, fatal crashes involving Toyota vehicles continued to mount, surpassing those of all other manufacturers combined.
In a written statement, NHTSA said its records show that since the 2002 model year, a total of 15 people died in crashes related to possible sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles, compared with 11 deaths in vehicles made by all other automakers.
The Times located federal and other records of 19 fatalities involving Toyota and Lexus vehicles in which sudden or unintended acceleration may have been a factor over the same period, as well as more than 1,000 reports by owners that their vehicles had suddenly accelerated. Independent safety expert Sean Kane, president of Safety Research and Strategies, said he has identified nearly 2,000 Toyota sudden acceleration cases for vehicles built since 2001.
Other experts say the numbers may be far higher, pointing to a 2007 NHTSA survey of 600 Lexus owners that found 10 percent complained they had experienced sudden acceleration.
Toyota has been under a spotlight since Aug. 28, when off-duty California Highway Patrolman Mark Saylor and three members of his family died in a Lexus ES350 that accelerated to more than 100 miles per hour and crashed in San Diego County.
Toyota has blamed the Saylor crash on an incorrectly installed floor mat that jammed the accelerator pedal. In September, the company announced a recall of 3.8 million vehicles and is now designing a fix aimed at preventing sudden acceleration caused by floor mats.
Last week, NHTSA called the issue a “very dangerous problem” and said the remedy remains to be determined.
The agency declined a request for interviews but issued a statement defending its past actions, saying its officials have continuously monitored Toyota vehicles for potential defects and that many of the reports of sudden acceleration involved only momentary surges of engine power that did not result in any loss of vehicle control.
For its part, Toyota Motor Corp. defended its Toyota and Lexus vehicles and the validity of prior investigations.
“Six times in the past six years NHTSA has undertaken an exhaustive review of allegations of unintended acceleration on Toyota and Lexus vehicles, and six times the agency closed the investigation without finding any electronic engine control system malfunction to be the cause of unintended acceleration,” company spokesman Irv Miller said in a statement.