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Special report: Toyota acceleration complaints drop following recalls

Consumer Reports News: February 24, 2011 04:12 PM

Last month, NASA reported they could find no electronic gremlins in Toyota’s electronics that could cause the cars to suddenly accelerate out of control. The space agency points to mechanical issues, related to floor mat entrapment and sticky pedals. Toyota added under-carpet padding to that list with a new recall today that affects more than two million vehicles. But what do consumers say about the causes for unintended acceleration?

Looking at the complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), it looks like they mainly agree.

In the year since complaints about speed control problems in Toyota spiked in Feb. 2010 after Toyota issued two major recalls to address the problem of floor mat entrapment and sticking throttle pedals, related complaints to NHTSA about Toyotas have dropped about 96 percent relative to the number of cars it sold in the United States.

While that’s still a bit more than the average for other major automakers, it indicates that the elevated complaint level may have been a result of widespread media coverage. As we have found in tracking past complaint trends, reports to NHTSA spike when high-profile news stories or recalls are announced, then taper down over time. That Toyota owners have submitted an incrementally greater number of complaints is likely due to heightened awareness of not just the issue, but how to submit a complaint.

This significant decrease to near industry average levels further suggests that the recalls Toyota issued--one to secure floor mats and reduce interference with the accelerator pedal, and the other to replace sticking pedals—may have addressed the problem, as the recent NASA report claimed.

In raw numbers, from January 2010 through January 2011, NHTSA received 4,314 complaints involving “speed control” issues on Toyota and Lexus vehicles, and 2,700 on all other automakers. That may be a big number, but consider that Toyota and Lexus had a combined 16 percent of the market during that timeframe, larger than any other single automaker.

More telling is the complaint rate per 100,000 vehicles sold, which climbed from about 13 per 100,000 Toyotas and Lexuses in January 2010 to more than 72 per 100,000 the next month. Then it tailed off to about three in the last couple of months. On average, other automakers also saw increased complaints in the same time frame, climbing from just under one per 100,000 in January 2010 to about 2.7 in February and March, following the recalls, then diminishing again to just over one last month. Keep in mind that these counts are based on the report date and in some may include events that occurred previously. However, we see a similar trend when examining complaints counts by failure date.

Here at Consumer Reports, we pledged to keep an eye on any kind abnormal complaint levels to NHTSA, and our analysis of this data is part of that effort. To identify the numbers, we searched for all complaints to NTHSA on Toyota, Lexus, and Scion brand cars and trucks having to do with speed control. Then we divided the number of complaints into the total number of vehicles Toyota has sold over the time frame.

A second government report, by the National Academies of Science, covering what the best safety practices in automotive electronics and sudden unintended acceleration across the entire industry, not just Toyota, should be is due out this summer. In the meantime, Consumer Reports has advocated several standards we hope NHTSA will develop to minimize unintended acceleration across the auto industry, including:
  • Requiring that cars be able to stop quickly even with the throttle pinned open by whatever means.
  • Ensuring that push-button ignition systems can turn the engine off in an emergency as easily as they turn it on.
  • Creating labels for automatic transmission shifters that make it easy for drivers to see how to put the car into Neutral, even in a high-stress situation.
  • Setting minimum and or maximum distances for the accelerator and brake pedals from the floor, from the firewall, and from each other to reduce the propensity for pedal misapplication, including accidentally stepping on both pedals.
  • And governing what data should be recorded by onboard electronic data recorders in cars, and for how long.

With these additional standards, we think scary incidents of unintended acceleration can be minimized for all drivers, no matter what brand of car they drive.

Should you experience a significant safety problem with a vehicle, report it to NHTSA. Every driver can play a role in improving national car safety by sharing this information, and thereby allowing the agency to detect emerging trends and take appropriate actions. (Read: How to write a NHTSA complaint - and make it useful.)

Look up your Toyota or Lexus vehicle by VIN.

Learn more about unintended acceleration in our special section.

NASA report: Blame floor mats and pedals, Toyota already addressed acceleration problems
Toyota to pay $32.4 million more in civil penalties
Toyota updates on recall campaign, safety initiatives for 2011
One year later: Aftermath of the Toyota recalls
Video: How "brake override" stops runaway cars
Consumers Union calls for changes to strengthen U.S. car-safety net

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