Study concluding Toyota drivers at fault – not so fast, advocates say – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

A Washington Post editorial recently endorsed a government study concluding that sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles were largely the fault of drivers and not a defect in the cars themselves. The Post cited findings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which tested 58 data recorders – in 35 of which, NHTSA said, the brake pedal was not depressed at the time of the crash. In other words, the problem is with the drivers.

But there are skeptics about NHTSA’s findings. One auto safety expert, Sean Kane, wrote on his Web site, Toyota Dealers to Customers: It’s Not Me, It’s You:

“Toyota has never had any good choices in extricating itself from the Sudden Unintended Acceleration problem it has been in for a year and counting. (Except admit the problem, work diligently to resolve it, take your lumps and move on.) But as many a public relations expert has opined already, they have won themselves a place in the pantheon of business school case studies in the “What-Not-to-Do” category.”

“I just don’t think that sudden acceleration can be explained by floor mats, driver error, or sticky pedals.” Kane said recently, “We’ve heard from consumers who reported …. that long before the issue became a daily news staple, when they took their vehicle in for servicing after an SUA event, mechanics made remarks along the lines of: we’re seeing a lot of this. We’ve heard from consumers who’ve reported that the techs at the dealership observed the phenomenon themselves, or found fault codes, but told the customer it was the floor mat.”

I’m partial to Kane’s skepticism. In my decade handling auto safety issues in Washington, DC for Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, we found that government analyses too often discredited consumers’ first-hand experiences. Consumers would provide dramatic accounts of cars breaking down, catching fire spontaneously, or careening out of control, but rarely could government analyses find the problem. That is why I’m wary of this recent NHTSA analysis and sympathetic to the hundreds of consumers who have described terrifying incidents of sudden acceleration. I just don’t think they all could be wrong.