On Nov. 3, I reported on an ABC-TV news investigation of sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles. Seemingly without cause, hundreds of motorists (many, but by no means all, driving Toyotas) have reported their cars taking off on their own, in some cases reaching speeds of 90 mph. There have many fatal accidents as a result and, not surprising, a bevy of lawsuits.

Toyota was the target of the ABC broadcasts, and it responded that the problem is related to wrong or badly secured floormats bunching up and interfering with the gas pedal. It issued a statement that urged customers to remove the mats from their cars, and also opined that “no defects exists in vehicles in which the driver’s floor mat is compatible with the vehicle and properly secured.” But that conclusion, citing investigations by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), crumbled yesterday. After the New York Times pointed out that Toyota was misrepresenting NHTSA’s position, the agency issued a press release accusing Toyota of putting out “inaccurate and misleading information.” NHTSA, it said, “will fully investigate any possible defect trends in these vehicles.”

Toyota’s John Hanson said in a subsequent statement that the company had not intended “to mislead or provide inaccurate information,” and that mat replacement is “an interim measure,” but he stuck to the position that floormats are at the heart of the problem.

Many victims doubt that explanation. My first MNN story received this reply from “Joe”: “I have had the same acceleration happen on my 2008 Ford F150.They tell me it’s the floor mat or when I am braking I must be hitting the gas. I know this is not the case and I have had witnesses.”

Joe and anyone else who has had a similar experience should contact me at jmotavalli@gmail.com. Confidentially will be respected unless you want your case publicized.

In any case, if this has happened to you, you’re not alone. After interviewing the veteran campaigner Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety (co-author of a book on sudden acceleration), I heard from Tom Murray of the law firm Murray & Murray in Ohio. Murray said that he’s handling some 20 cases of sudden acceleration, involving many makes of cars, including Toyota, Subaru, Kia, Ford and Volkswagen of America. He claims there have been as many as 100,000 cases of runaway cars — “at minimum; that’s a conservative figure,” he said.

Murray, a veteran attorney, is handling one fatality case in Michigan involving a 2008 crash that killed Guadalupe Alberto, whose 2005 Toyota Camry allegedly took off at 80 mph and hit a tree. According to the lawsuit, that car had no floormats, so a simple explanation may not be enough.

"This is a 30-year cover-up by the entire industry,” Murray charges. “We have hundreds of smoking guns, and they know exactly what the problem is.” According to Murray, the problem is related to electromagnetic interference with the electronic controls that are in virtually every modern car and truck. Today’s “throttle by wire” systems are part of a single control system that presents opportunities for interference with not only the throttle, but also braking, steering and airbags, he said. “Everybody who drives a modern car is now at risk because the industry hasn’t done its homework,” Murray said.

NHTSA doesn’t necessarily agree with Murray. It does think that floormats are the cause in many of these cases. Its most recent denial of a defect petition (involving a 2007 Lexus ES350 that allegedly ran away with Jeffrey Pepski of Plymouth, Minn.,) failed to corroborate electronic throttle problems as a cause. NHTSA has investigated sudden acceleration in Toyota and Lexus cars six times without finding the company at fault.

But the ABC investigation, and emerging cases that can’t easily be pinned on loose floormats, are likely to keep this issue alive for the foreseeable future. Ditlow tells me, “NHTSA did dozens of sudden acceleration investigations in the 1980s and 1990s into virtually every manufacturer without being able to find a common defect — their conclusion was, “Since we can’t find a defect, it must be driver error.” Hence the title of our book,” which is Sudden Acceleration: The Myth of Driver Error.

Again, if something like this has happened to you, please write to me at jmotavalli@gmail.com and I’ll continue to report on this important issue.

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