Runaway Toyotas: Fact Or Fiction?

Company Says Floor Mats While ABC News Claims 'Sudden Acceleration'

Recently, we learned about a tragic story that's made us look twice down at our feet whenever we get in a car.

Late this past summer in San Diego, a family of four died after the vehicle's accelerator pedal stuck to the floor; the driver, a California Highway Patrol Officer, couldn't get the car to stop. Eventually they crashed into another driver and hit an embankment, bursting into flames. He died, along with his wife, daughter and brother-in-law, who was able to make a grisly phone call to 911 one minute before the crash. Something clearly was wrong.

Investigators with the National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that a rubber all-weather floor mat was found to be at fault. The mat was longer than the original, which pushed up to the accelerator pedal and locked it into angle that raced the engine. The issue seemed to be a closed case of a terrible mishap with a tragic ending.

That the vehicle driven by the family was a 2009 Lexus ES350 seemed to be extraneous information. Blaming Lexus certainly isn't going to bring back Mark Saylor, his wife, daughter and brother-in-law, Chris Lastrella. But, was the vehicle itself to blame?

In the Cross Hairs

A discussion seems to be brewing about that very notion and Toyota (owner of the Lexus brand) is working with NHTSA to make sure there are no defects with their accelerator pedals or the systems that manage them.

The long and short of this issue, in the eye of Toyota (who say they've been working with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, or NHTSA on the matter), is that "no defect exists in vehicles in which the driver’s floor mat is compatible with the vehicle and properly secured." In other words, there is no unintended acceleration problem officially known at this time. Toyota feels confident in their position.

Vehicles Involved in Toyota's Safety Advisory

Toyota's advice for owners of the above vehicles: Until Toyota develops a remedy, it is asking owners of specific Toyota and Lexus models to take out any removable driver’s floor mat and NOT replace it with any other floor mat.

The company says that the problems, if any, are limited to incorrect and/or poorly secured floor mats. Its guidance to its dealers and owners is clear: only certain floor mats should be placed in certain cars and each should be anchored to the floor by its hooks. Recently Toyota modified that position and recommended that all its drivers should remove the driver's side floor mat entirely until a further solution is made available. Toyota says it is working on a permanent solution for certain models so that the floor mat issue doesn't come up again.

All Toyota, Scion and Lexus models have floor-mounted hooks that attach the floor mat to the ground in the proper location, according to company spokesperson Curt McAllister. NHTSA says these floor-mounted hooks are not mandatory; some cars do not have them at all.

Last night, ABC News's Nightline program attempted to rip the cover off of Toyota's claims. The news group posted an article on Tuesday with a headline reading: "Owners of Toyota Cars In Rebellion Over Series of Accidents Caused By Sudden Acceleration; ABC News Investigation Uncovers Reports of 16 Deaths, Over 200 Accidents."

Critical to ABC News's claims are the first-person accounts of owners who lived to tell their stories. Persons interviewed on the broadcast claimed that the floor mats are not the lone issue (or in some cases an issue at all), but rather the real problem is a fault of an electronic throttle control module.

"I'm absolutely certain, that in my situation, it was not the floor mats," said Toyota owner Elizabeth James on the broadcast. "I kept going faster and faster and all of a sudden, my foot was pressing on the brakes super, super hard and I wasn't slowing down. My car just kept accelerating. And it wasn't until I landed in the river that it stopped."

Her Toyota Prius finally stopped when -- yes, you read that correctly -- she ended up in a river outside of Denver, her car a mangled pile of metal and rainbow trout.

Gallery: Avoid Floor Mat
Problems Using These Tips"/>
Gallery: Avoid Floor Mat
Problems Using These Tips

Who To Believe?

The Wisconsin Law Journal seems to echo the statement of ABC News. The Journal posits that Toyota products started having more problems with their accelerators after a new type of electronic throttle control was introduced with the 2002 Toyota Camry. Quite simply, that was the time when many manufacturers -- including Toyota -- moved to a "drive by wire" system. That is, when your foot presses on the accelerator, there is no mechanical connection between the pedal and the delivery of fuel; while the pedal might feel the same to you, the workings behind it have changed. "By wire" means that now there is actually an electronic signal sent to a series of "brains" within the car that tell the throttle to deliver more, or less, fuel.

Since the new electronic throttle modules were introduced, there is documented evidence that other vehicles within Toyota's lineup have experienced similar problems; in September NHTSA reported 102 incidents where the accelerator may have become stuck in Toyota vehicles. NHTSA recently completed its sixth investigation of the problem, however, and could find no evidence of an issue with the electronic throttle control.

"So far nobody has been able to recreate the computer glitch that would cause the car to take off," ABC's Brian Ross said. And perhaps that's the problem -- even Toyota and NHTSA can't recreate these horror stories.

If we're to believe ABC News's claim that 2000 incidents were reported, that's still a statistically tiny percentage of the 3.2 million vehicles under recall. Statistics give us little comfort when there's a death involved, of course. Even one episode of this type would be cause enough for a manufacturer to dig deep into any potential problems.

So, is Toyota covering something up? At this point that kind of conspiracy theory would be off base. You can bet all 18.2 points of Toyota's American market share that they have little to gain by this sort of issue. If the company found unintended acceleration to be a legitimate problem, there would be little else to do but admit it publicly, fix it and move on.

Here's Toyota's Bob Daly with the company's official word on the matter:

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On Monday of this week I met with Bob Carter, Toyota's group vice president and general manager, in Detroit. Carter's tone indicated that he -- and Toyota -- was confident that the issue was contained to floor mats only. No electronic throttle problems existed as far as the company was concerned.

Need to Know: How To Prevent Floor Mat Problems

1. Use only the factory-specified floor mat for your vehicle.
2. Secure the mat to the factory hooks, or clips, on the floor. If your vehicle doesn't have hooks or clips on the floor, make sure the mat is in its proper place and not moved forward underneath any pedals before you turn the car on.
3. Don't buy thicker, aftermarket mats that aren't meant for your vehicle.
4. Don't flip your mat over or double up your mats (as some owners do in the winter time).

If you own one of the above vehicles, here's Toyota's safety advistory:Until Toyota develops a remedy, it is asking owners of specific Toyota and Lexus models to take out any removable driver’s floor mat and NOT replace it with any other floor mat.

"There is no evidence to support these theories," Carter told me in addition to the group of media assembled. "It is important to note there is no risk of pedal entrapment in vehicles in which the driver-side floor mat is compatible with the vehicle and properly secured. The question of unintended acceleration involving Toyota vehicles has been thoroughly investigated by NHTSA's engineering experts without any findings of defect other than an unsecured or incompatible driver's floor mat."

ABC News rebutted Carter's statement in their broadcast last night. The news group did not specify which group or which individual, but said that government officials are still looking into this issue and have not given Toyota a "clean bill of health."

No manufacturer is safe from the issues surrounding recalls and, in some cases, vehicle-related deaths. With major manufacturers building and selling millions of units per year, they have tens of millions of possible points of failure over a typical owner period. How they manage those issues, both privately and publicly, is critical. In as much as Toyota has done their own investigation and issued a quick advisory on the matter, we think they're doing the right thing. If further information develops that can be substantiated through testing of the throttle modules, we trust they'll bring about swift change to replace any faulty parts.

"The challenge for all corporations is that money dominates the discussion, " said Rex Greenslade, owner of G Works Inc. and a former PR executive at Ford Motor Company. "It's money for the engineering of the fix, then more money for the manufacturing, distribution and fitting of the fix. And even more money if that leaves you open to subsequent product liability lawsuits. Successful corporations manage to also attach a notional money figure for their long-term image and reputation and strategically manage their crisis plans accordingly."

Greenslade further points out that sometimes the perception of reality is more important than reality itself. A similar claim of "sudden acceleration" was introduced by 1986 episode of CBS's 60 Minutes program that did terrible damage to the brand. After investigations, Audi was found to be without fault and a woman used in the TV segment was found to be a fraud. But, as they say, the damage was done. Audi lost nearly 80% of its sales volume in the years following the report.

"Corporations that survive such crises with their image and reputation intact do so because they acted quickly, openly and truthfully," Greenslade said. "It's difficult to accept that there's a problem in the marketplace when your engineers are telling you that there's no foundation for such a problem scientifically. As Audi found out, if the perception is that there's a problem, there's a problem, period."

What To Do If You Encounter Problem With Your Floor Mats

If you have the correct floor mats in your car and secure them properly, Toyota maintains that you should not have a problem. Regardless of the brand, if you actually experience sudden acceleration, place your car into neutral, apply hard and consistent brake pressure, and find a clearing in traffic to pull your car over to the shoulder.

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