By Jayne O’Donnell and David Kiley, USA TODAY
ROCKVILLE, Md. â€” Carol Mathews, 60, has been driving since she was 12 years old on a South Dakota farm. So when her 2002 Lexus ES 300 ran into a tree as she pulled into a restaurant parking space last fall, she was pretty sure she wasn’t the problem. She says it was the third time the car lurched forward without her help.
Marlene Fett, 70, swears she hadn’t touched the gas pedal when her 1988 Lincoln Town Car plowed into a carousel outside an Arkansas Wal-Mart in 1995. The crash killed 6-month-old Nathaniel Chapman and seriously injured his then-2-year-old brother, Jonathan.
Was it the car or the driver?
The question lingers 15 years after federal auto safety officials said so-called unintended or sudden acceleration was caused when drivers stepped on the gas instead of the brake. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 1989 report was in response to well-publicized complaints that models sold by Audi and other automakers would take off on their own from a standstill, travel several feet and usually crash.
But lack of ironclad proof that the cause of unintended acceleration lies either with a car defect or driver error has made the issue a recurring nightmare for automakers and regulators. Each new spate of incidents can cause renewed jitters among drivers.
Now, NHTSA has opened an investigation into whether a new technology is making unintended acceleration more frequent â€” or just giving errant drivers and plaintiffs’ lawyers something new to blame for crashes.
The technology, electronic throttle control, uses sensors to tell a car’s computer how much to open the throttle, which lets in air, and how much fuel to inject into the engine to control speed. Automakers like the technology, which replaces a mechanical cable, for reliability and cost savings, and because its helps fuel economy and improves performance. But it works with other new and often bug-ridden electronics that plaintiffs’ lawyers say are leading to unintended acceleration.
Specifically, NHTSA is investigating the electronic throttle control system in more than 1 million 2002-03 Toyota Camrys, Solaras and Lexus ES 300s. It has narrowed the probe to 11 complaints of engine surge, five that involved crashes. More than two dozen other complaints were dropped from the investigation.
But the Toyota case is only one of several recent unintended acceleration developments. Others:
â€¢ At least 16 drivers have told NHTSA that their 1998-99 Audi A6 sedans pick up speed without help while already moving, mostly in subzero temperatures in Northeastern states. Drivers said the only way to stop the car was to turn the ignition off. The agency is investigating.
â€¢ Subaru recalled 128,000 vehicles because of a possible defect in the cruise control system that could leave throttles sticking wide open. The throttle stayed open rather than returning to idle when the driver removed his foot, NHTSA says.
â€¢ For more than a decade, decisions usually favored car companies and blamed drivers in unintended acceleration cases, but some recent trials and court decisions reversed that. Ford Motor and General Motors each recently lost a high-profile case.
Complaints about unintended acceleration have mostly come in three phases. After the surge of complaints in the 1980s, automakers added mechanisms known as shift-locks, which force drivers to press the brake pedal if they want to shift into drive or reverse. That cut the number of unintended acceleration complaints considerably in the 1990s.
But in the mid to late ’90s, plaintiff lawyers began to blame increasingly popular cruise control systems for new unintended acceleration problems. They say simultaneous and undetectable cruise control failures can give cars power as soon as the ignition is turned on and cause them to accelerate on their own.
Automakers and regulators say that cruise control, like any component, can malfunction, but they dismiss the lawyers’ theory that it is linked to cars taking off on their own from a stop. They say all the incarnations of cruise control have given often-elderly drivers a complicated new technology to blame for their own mistakes.
Now, many expect electronic throttle control will be the new lawsuit target.
Incident followed concerns
Carol Mathews is no mechanic, but she says she knows her car and her driving. And she’s all but certain her car was operating on its own when it hit the tree last fall in the parking lot in Rockville, a Washington suburb. The incident followed several months of concerns about jerkiness, deceleration and acceleration without her help while driving at highway speeds. After seeing dozens of related complaints about Lexus and Toyota models on NHTSA’s Web site, she petitioned NHTSA to open a probe, which it did last month.
Mathews, a nurse and school health official, bought her Lexus about a year before her crash and after putting 155,000 miles on a 1989 Oldsmobile Toronado Trofeo. She dismisses the longtime argument by regulators and automakers that it might have been hard to adjust to a new vehicle with new pedals that are positioned differently. Older-model American cars often have larger brake pedals than Japanese models, and the gas pedal might be where the brake was in a drivers’ previous car. In Mathews’ cars, the pedals are only slightly different in size and position.
Toyota spokesman Mike Michels says the automaker takes the complaints seriously but believes it’s significant that NHTSA has already reduced the number it is investigating to 11. "That’s a pretty small number, and we do not think that there is any event that could take place that couldn’t be overcome by applying the brake," says Michels.
Electronic throttle control units show trouble codes on the car’s computer and illuminate the check-engine light on the dash if there are malfunctions. Michels says Toyota technicians found no trouble codes with Mathews’ car. None of the other complaints mentions a check-engine light.
Fett and her lawyer blame cruise control for her 1995 crash. "The car just took off," she says.
The deadly collision sent her to the hospital, where she says she had a heart attack and a bleeding ulcer that burst. Her husband, William, says that for six months, Fett couldn’t look at a child without crying and couldn’t bear to drive by Wal-Mart.
A Chapman family lawsuit against Ford is scheduled to be heard in November. The family settled its lawsuit with the Fetts, who now also are suing Ford.
Little Rock attorney Sandy McMath, who is representing the Chapmans, says the Town Car’s cruise control put Fett on a "rocket ship to Mars" after she pulled out of her parking place. He petitioned NHTSA to investigate what he says is a defect in Ford and Lincoln models’ cruise control that causes the accelerator to stick.
In a lengthy 1999 report denying McMath’s petition, NHTSA investigator Bob Young wrote that even if such an occurrence took place and didn’t leave evidence of a mechanical malfunction, the situation should be reproducible through in-vehicle and laboratory tests. None of NHTSA’s testing could do so.
McMath says he has an expert who can replicate it, "But it is not a road show you can put on and bring around the country."
Despite NHTSA’s rulings, automakers have suffered recent losses in cruise control cases:
â€¢ A Missouri jury last year ordered GM to pay Constance Peters and her husband $80 million for the crash of her 1993 Oldsmobile Cutlass, which accelerated 120 feet in reverse and into a tree while she was backing up. They blamed faulty cruise control. GM is appealing.
â€¢ The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York in 2002 reinstated a $1.1 million judgment against Ford in the crash of a 1991 Ford Aerostar. Jurors had found that the crash was caused partly by a "negligently designed" cruise control system.
Age as an issue?
In its 1989 report, NHTSA noted that drivers over 60 were as much as six times as likely as younger drivers to be involved in an unintended acceleration incident, suggesting that deteriorating reflexes are a contributing factor.
But the older-driver theory raises the ire of McMath and Tom Murray of Sandusky, Ohio, another Chapman attorney. McMath calls it "the hobgoblin of geezer negligence." Murray says, "These cases go back to the 1980s and involve Audi 5000s, Ford Thunderbirds, Mercury Cougars and Grand Marquis, Ford Aerostar vans, as well as Town Cars, and the complaints and incidents cover a broad demographic waterfront."
Audi, which has been linked for many years to real or imagined unintended acceleration, perhaps has the most to fear from a fresh look at the issue. In the mid-1980s, the German automaker, owned by Volkswagen, was investigated for hundreds of complaints of unintended acceleration in its 5000 sedan. The resulting bad publicity caused Audi sales to drop 60% in three years, even though NHTSA never found a flaw in Audi’s design and blamed driver error.
The company says it is cooperating fully with NHTSA’s new probe into its A6 models but, like Toyota, doesn’t believe the cars are defective.
"Our engineers are looking into what could have caused the complaints, but we don’t believe this is related at all to claims of years ago," says Audi spokesman Doug Clark.
Michels says electronic throttle control systems are not likely to blame for Toyota models, either: "That’s not to say they don’t fail or they can’t fail, but they are very reliable."
In the future, technology might lead to more concerns about unintended acceleration, but it may also finally bring some answers.
Automakers are rapidly adding electronics to cars, including systems that will control acceleration, braking and steering if a vehicle gets too close to another. While most of the high-tech additions are expected to make driving safer, some in and out of government expect they’ll also be the source of more complaints.
At the same time, new data-recording devices, similar to the black boxes on airplanes, are increasingly showing up on vehicles. They will show computer codes that tell whether the throttle control system failed, the brakes were used and numerous other details about cars before a crash. That means the often-missing electronic footprints of what caused a crash finally will be available.
Still, it’s hard to imagine it will end the debate forever.
Says Chicago attorney John Coleman, who has represented Ford in numerous unintended acceleration cases: "There will always be something to argue about in court."