LAT says that more than 1,000 Toyota and Lexus owners have reported sudden acceleration problems over the last decade, resulting in 19 deaths and scores of injuries. These findings, based on a review of federal records, would be bad enough. But here's the meat of the story:
Federal officials eliminated broad categories of sudden-acceleration complaints, including cases in which drivers said they were unable to stop runaway cars using their brakes; incidents of unintended acceleration lasting more than a few seconds; and reports in which owners did not identify the possible causes of the problem. NHTSA officials used the exclusions as part of their rationale to close at least five of the investigations without finding any defect, because -- with fewer incidents to consider -- the agency concluded there were not enough reported problems to warrant further inquiry. In a 2003 Lexus probe, for example, the agency threw out all but one of 37 customer complaints cited in a defect petition. It then halted further investigation, saying it "found no data indicating the existence of a defect trend."
A plaintiffs attorney offers an explanation on why this might have happened:
A reduced pool of reports created the appearance that the problem was much smaller than the total number of complaints suggested, making a broader vehicle recall seem less necessary, critics say. NHTSA has ways of pigeonholing reports, categorizing them as brake failure rather than sudden acceleration," said attorney Edgar Heiskell of Charleston, W.Va., who is suing Toyota over a fatal crash in Flint, Mich. "By excluding these braking and long-duration events, they have taken 80% of the cases off the table."
All this obviously goes beyond the floor mat problems that Toyota has blamed for jammed accelerators - and which led to the deaths of a CHP officer and three members of his family.
First-person note: From the time I bought my Lexus in 2004, sudden acceleration has been a problem, though certainly not to the degree that the Times is reporting. When I inquired at the dealership a couple of weeks after purchasing the car, a manager told me it was a Toyota defect that could not be corrected. I have since learned to ease off and on the gas pedal, especially coming up to red lights that suddenly turn green. For a while I used to joke that I was the only dissatisfied Lexus owner on the planet. Not anymore, I guess.