MONTGOMERY, ALA. (April 6, 2010) – Yesterday the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) finally decided to get tough with automaker Toyota for safety problems involving almost all of the car maker’s models. The problem is Sudden Unintended Acceleration (SUA), in which vehicles race out of control despite drivers’ attempts to stop them. NHTSA levied a record-setting $16.4 million fine against Toyota regarding its sticky accelerator pedal recall, saying the company did not notify the NHTSA in a timely way about the problem. Toyota has two weeks to accept or contest the penalty.
But the matter is much more complicated than that. Recalls involving SUA currently encompass more than 8 million vehicles worldwide. The problem has been blamed not only on sticky accelerator pedals, but also on defective floor mats. Many safety experts still contend that neither of these is the true fault, but assert that the blame lies within the vehicles’ electrical system. The Beasley Allen lawyers believe that to be a major part of this problem.
Although the proposed fine would be the largest civil penalty ever issued to an automaker by the government, it only touches the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what Toyota has failed to disclose, according to Beasley Allen attorney Graham Esdale, who has been investigating Toyota SUA cases for more than two years. He has long alleged the true root of the problem lies with the vehicles’ electrical system. He blames both Toyota and the NHTSA for continuing to put consumers in danger.
“This is window dressing,” Esdale says of the proposed penalty. “A planned distraction so that NHTSA and Toyota can try and put this behind them. Sticky pedals are not causing sudden acceleration and this in no way addresses that problem. The victims of SUA can’t take any comfort in this fine. All this does is illuminate the culture of deceit and cover-up that has been pervasive in the auto industry and aided by NHTSA. We recently went through this with the Ford Firestone debacle, and nothing has changed.”
Uncovered internal Toyota documents have revealed Toyota actually blamed SUA incidents on electronics in August 2002, when it issued a Technical Service Bulletin warning that Camrys were reportedly surging out of control and recommending a fix for the electronic controls. The bulletin was sent to the NHTSA, which also issued an internal memo acknowledging Toyota SUA in 2002 and 2003 Camrys. But the information was not made public until recently.
The notion that SUA is tied to the automobile electrical system also has been supported by independent research, including a study conducted by Safety Research & Strategies, Inc. (SRS). Sean Kane, president of SRS, testified before Congress in February. Upon learning of the government’s decision to fine Toyota $16.4 million, Kane said, “People need to remember: as NHTSA and Toyota have both acknowledged, sticking accelerator pedals have nothing to do with Sudden Unintended Acceleration. In fact, owners have complained to NHTSA about experiencing SUA incidents after getting the sticky accelerator pedal recall fix.”
SRS calls the new fine a “shim-sham” that only serves to distract from the real safety issue.