The Toyota Motor Corporation is finding itself in an unfamiliar place as media, consumer groups and government officials examine a problem regarding select Toyota and Lexus models. “Runaway Toyota” may soon become a commonly used term as that describes a serious situation involving certain vehicles.
Indeed, it was this past August when a fiery Lexus crash killed four members of one family in California. That crash involved a California Highway Patrol officer, Mark Saylor, and his family as their loaner Lexus suddenly surged to speeds in excess of 100 mph before crashing into another car, flipping over, and landing down an embankment.
Saylor’s brother-in-law, who had been riding in the back seat called 9-1-1 to report the runaway car, telling the emergency operator that the Lexus was surging out of control. The car, on loan to Saylor as their own Lexus was in for maintenance, allegedly experienced a jammed accelerator due to an all-weather floor mat that wedged up underneath the pedal.
Toyota’s floor mat finding was supported by the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration (NHTSA) who ordered the Japanese automaker to recall some 3.8 million vehicles with floor mat problems. The NHTSA agreed to allow Toyota to temporarily fix the problem by using zip ties to hold drive side floor mats in place. In the meantime, Toyota and Lexus owners were instructed to remove their floor mats in advance of their service call.
But not everyone is convinced that floor mats are to blame for this and other crashes which have killed as many as sixteen people. ABC News’s Brian Ross has been investigating the problem airing reports on “Good Morning America” and “Nightline” in recent days to outline his findings. Ross shared comments from other Toyota and Lexus owners who have insisted that their cars surged for reasons other than jammed floor mats.
Indeed, in one account aired by Ross a Toyota Prius driver, Elizabeth James, claimed that her car surged even though her foot was not on the accelerator. Slamming on the brake failed to bring her Prius to a stop, rather it took her driving off the road, through a field and crashing into a river to end her ordeal.
One safety advocate, Sean Kane, was interviewed by Ross for his expose. Kane, who founded Safety Research & Strategies, Inc. in 2004 following a tenure with Ralph Nader’s Center for Auto Safey, claims that the situation with affected Toyota and Lexus vehicles points to an electrical problem, not floor mats.
Kane told Ross that beginning in 2002, Toyota began to use an electronic computer control system to regulate the accelerator. Instead of the driver controlling acceleration directly from the gas pedal, these particular cars send a signal to the computer which exercises electronic control over speed. Thus, there is no longer a mechanical component for drivers to rely on, which means that they may be at the mercy of an errant computer. Kane has recorded more than one thousand accidents and incidents since then involving Toyota surge problems.
On Tuesday, Toyota responded to the initial ABC News report, dismissing claims that anything other than floor mats were to blame. Later in the day, the NHTSA noted that the floor mat fix was a temporary measure and that the federal agency was still investigating the problem. That night, ABC News followed up its earlier investigation with an update by Ross who spoke to several owners involved in crashes, including some who are now suing Toyota.
Finally, Ross contacted Consumers Union to learn what people can do to stop their runaway Toyotas. Their test driver explained that drivers need to first put their foot on the brake…hard. Then, with foot still on the brake put the car in neutral which will stop the still high revving car. Once stopped, the driver can turn their vehicle off and exit.