Sudden Toyota accelerations: Electrical failure?

January 21, 2010 7:19:27 PM PST
Toyota recalled more than two million vehicles Thursday because of sticking accelerator pedals. The recall includes the 2009-2010 RAV4, the 2009-2010 Corolla, the 2009-2010 Matrix, the 2005-2010 Avalon, the 2007-2010 Camry, the 2010 Highlander, the 2007-2010 Tundra and the 2008-2010 Sequioia.

The recall follows reports of Toyotas and Lexuses suddenly accelerating without warning.

Thursday's action is separate from the recall of four million floor mats late last year. Toyota said at the time the mats were getting stuck on the gas pedal, causing the vehicle to accelerate. But neither of the recalls address what some see as a potentially larger issue -- that the sudden acceleration is being caused by an electrical failure.

Renata Jabuka of Walnut Creek remembers the day after Christmas for all the wrong reasons.

"My physical reaction, from the top of my head to my feet, I was just shaking so hard," she said. "I could barely even touch the wheel."

That is what she says happened after she made a right turn and began pulling forward into a parking space. That is when she says the throttle of her 2004 Lexus RX-330 clicked down on its own and thrust itself into the parked car ahead of her.

"Because the impact was so severe, it would bounce back and then hit, jerk forward again," she explained. "It was as though you were hitting something and the impact was so hard the car would kick back and hit again, and then kick back and hit again."

The impact knocked a 1997 Honda Civic onto the sidewalk. That car's owner saw only the aftermath of the accident.

"I didn't know what to do or what to say. I was just frightened," said Israel Ramirez of San Leandro. "I didn't know who had done that. It's a new car to me and having gone through that, I was frightened, scared."

The problem is known as sudden unintended acceleration. That is when a car accelerates for no apparent reason.

UC Berkeley physics professor Bob Jacobsen says it is not likely Jabuka's car rebounded back and forth the way she recalls. But there is another explanation.

"Even though the car was slamming to a stop, she may have felt like she was going back and forth quite a bit with the entire car," said Jacobsen. "It could be it was happening so fast, all she really felt was her motion." He says it is also possible Jabuka accidentally hit the gas pedal instead of the break.

Jabuka invited us along when Toyota engineers came to inspect her vehicle. The engineers installed a tech stream device which can tell whether the accelerator was depressed and whether the brake lights were on at the time of the accident. That can point investigators towards operator error or dysfunction in the car itself.

Our visit was short. Without explanation, the engineer ended his inspection. By phone Toyota told 7 On Your Side it does not conduct investigations in front of news crews and accused us of interfering.

The engineer has since completed his investigation, but has not released his findings.

Jabuka is certain her floor mats did not cause her accident, even though her RX-330 is not part of the current recall.

"They were clamped down," she said. "There's little clamps on the floor of the car, sir, and there's little holes where the mat goes and mine were up and attached."

Toyota has not responded to our question about why the RX-330 is not part of the current recall.

So far, no witnesses have come forward in this accident. But there was a witness to a suspected sudden acceleration incident in New Jersey. It was witnessed by a Toyota dealer.

Kevin Haggerty had complained to his dealership several times about similar problems on his 2007 Toyota Avalon. Then it happened again.

"I called them on the cell phone, I told them I had an emergency, the car was accelerating. I had a tough time controlling the car. I want to bring this in. I want them to see this first-hand," said Haggerty.

He put his car in neutral and with his brake on coasted to the dealership two miles away. He told ABC's Brian Ross what happened next.

Ross: So when you pulled in, it was still racing. So they knew?

Haggerty: They knew they had a problem. I got out of the car.

Ross: It was still racing here?

Haggerty: Yup. I stepped back and told him to get in and this is what's happening. It's happening right now, and he confirmed it.

Toyota agreed to replace the throttle body and accelerator pedal assembly.

Sean Kane of Safety Research and Strategies in Massachusetts has combed data from accident reports, lawsuits, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and found 2,060 runaway complaints against Toyota.

"You've got on one hand a company that's saying it's all floor mats, this cannot happen from an electronic problem," said Kane. "Yet on the other hand, they've witnessed this problem occurring. They've replaced electronic components and they're saying we don't know if this is going to fix the problem."

Meantime, back in the Bay Area, Jabuka's husband, Stan Lappen, wants Toyota to take responsibility.

"I don't want my wife to drive the vehicle anymore," he said. "I feel it is a death trap waiting to lurch again."

Toyota tells 7 On Your Side it constantly monitors customer complaints and works to identify any defect trends. It is confident it is doing the right thing for its customers.

You can watch Brian Ross's investigation on this issue tonight (Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010) on Nightline right after ABC7 News at 11.