Publication: Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Author: Bob Cox

What Jennifer Deal calls the "scariest day of my life" was Aug. 5, when her nearly new 2009 Toyota Camry suddenly accelerated out of control on Ocean Drive in Corpus Christi.

Deal was driving 35 mph in a 35 mph speed zone, she says, when she sped up slightly to pass a slower moving vehicle. Her Toyota suddenly accelerated to 70 mph or more, and she found herself about to plow into vehicles ahead. "I'm honking the horn. I'm flashing my lights. I'm standing on the brakes," said Deal, 36, who lives in nearby Portland.

A collision appeared unavoidable, said Deal, who aimed for a pickup rather than a car with kids. The pickup driver either saw or heard the runaway Camry and pulled over, allowing Deal to pass. She eventually slowed, pulled over and stopped.

Deal is one of more than 100 Texas drivers who in recent years have reported their Toyotas unexpectedly accelerating. Not all those incidents turned out as well as Deal's.

At least six deaths have occurred since early November in Texas accidents that, lawsuits say, were caused when Toyotas suddenly accelerated and the driver lost control.

One of those accidents, on Dec. 26 in Southlake, killed all four occupants of a 2008 Avalon. The large sedan sped through a T-intersection, barreled through a steel fence and struck a tree. It then became airborne and landed upside down in a pond.

Linda Hardy, whose husband, Monty Hardy, 56, was driving, told police that she had told a Toyota dealer that the vehicle would suddenly accelerate. The dealer denies that any problems were reported.

Since fall, Toyota Motor Corp. has issued recalls covering more than 8 million vehicles to address sudden-acceleration problems that the company said could be caused by certain types of floor mats or a "sticky" gas pedal. The company faces enormous pressure from growing consumer worries, threats of government investigations and planned congressional hearings.

Toyota officials declined to be interviewed for this story. They referred questions to Dane Minor, general manager of Freeman Toyota in Hurst and chairman of Toyota's dealer advisory council.

A few weeks ago, as reports about Toyotas' acceleration problems gained wide attention, Minor said he asked his service manager whether any customers had reported problems to the dealership. "He said no, not at all."

Yet there is mounting evidence that the problem is bigger and more complex than Toyota has been willing to concede. Data compiled by an independent research firm from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration records indicate a growing number of incidents of sudden acceleration.

As of mid-January, Safety Research and Strategies, a Massachusetts firm that often does research for lawyers, found that in recent years there had been 105 documented Texas consumer complaints to the NHTSA about unintended or unbidden acceleration problems with Toyota and Lexus vehicles. At least 20 injuries were reported by consumers or safety authorities in accidents stemming from accelerator complaints.

Those records do not include three fatal crashes in November and December that have led to lawsuits against Toyota.

In a 180-page study released Feb. 5, Safety Research said consumers and accident investigators had filed reports with the NHTSA documenting 2,262 incidents nationwide of unintended or uncommanded acceleration by Toyotas. Those resulted in 819 crashes, 341 injuries and 26 deaths.

Sean Kane, founder of Safety Research, said Toyota's recalls don't address many of the acceleration complaints.

"The problem is more widespread than the manufacturer wants people to believe," Kane said. As of Friday, Kane's staff was wading through waves of new complaints filed with the NHTSA by consumers, probably prompted by the torrent of news stories about Toyota's problems and pending investigations.

Some complaints may be explained by a floor mat that binds movement of the accelerator, while others might be due to a "sticky" accelerator mechanism that doesn't immediately return to the idle position.

But in other cases, vehicles seem to accelerate without the driver's doing anything out of the ordinary. And in others, drivers reported their vehicles suddenly accelerating while they were braking, shifting or maneuvering around a parking lot.

"Are those related? We don't know the answer," Kane said.

He and others in the industry, as well as lawyers for Texas accident victims, say many of the acceleration incidents are likely caused by electrical and software quirks in the electronic throttle control systems used in Toyotas. Nearly 85 percent of all the Texas cases involve versions of the top-selling Camry sedan or its luxury siblings, the Lexus ES 300-330-350 series, built using the same major components.

The surge in reported acceleration problems seems to trace back to 2002, when Toyota began installing a new digital -- essentially computer-controlled -- throttle on the Camry and Lexus.

Subsequent models of those vehicles, as well as other Toyota models, use the same or similar versions of the "drive-by-wire" accelerator controls. Minor said that as the largest Toyota dealer in North Texas, with an estimated 22,000 customers, Freeman should have "more exposure to the problem, and we haven't had it."

At a meeting last week in Houston, Minor said dealers asked Toyota officials directly whether there were problems with the electronic throttle controls. "They stood in front of 150 dealers and told us, assured us, there was no problem at all."

Accident victims' lawyers say that they don't buy that and that the most logical explanation for many of the acceleration cases is faulty software in the throttle control -- essentially small computers that determine how much fuel is delivered to the engine in response to electronic signals from the gas pedal. "All it is is computer software," Dallas lawyer Todd Tracy said of the throttle control. "It's not a mechanical system."

Tracy, who specializes in auto liability and negligence litigation, sued in federal court in Dallas on Thursday on behalf of the family of Sharon Ransom, 56, of Grapevine, a passenger in the Avalon that crashed in Southlake. Randy Roberts of Tyler, the lawyer for Linda Hardy, the driver's widow, said his client had taken the vehicle to Texas Toyota of Grapevine "several times" because of acceleration problems.

"Sometimes she started to apply the accelerator and the car took off more than you would think it should," Roberts said. "There were times she felt like she didn't have sufficient control."

The dealership hooked the car to its diagnostic computer but found no problems. Roberts said the computer can identify only problems that it is programmed to look for.

"We're not blaming the dealer. They only know what they are told" by Toyota, he said.

Chris Grady, general manager of the dealership, confirmed that the Hardys brought in their vehicle for "routine maintenance, not exceeding oil changes," but that there "were never any complaints" about acceleration problems. Since taking over the dealership 16 months ago, Grady said, "I'd not heard of any complaints about uncommanded acceleration until the recall came out. Since the recall came out I've heard from five or six people."

Exponent, an engineering and consulting firm hired by Toyota, has prepared and submitted a report to Congress that says it tested six Toyota and Lexus vehicles with electronic throttle controls and found no evidence of problems despite numerous attempts to create circumstances that might theoretically cause a malfunction.

Exponent has worked for a number of major corporations facing high-profile lawsuits and government regulatory actions, according to the Los Angeles Times. But another study, funded in part by lawyers who are or may be suing Toyota, says a statistical analysis of the NHTSA's acceleration complaint data doesn't support Toyota's claims of no electronic system problems.

The report, by Quality Control Systems Corp., based in Maryland, states that after reviewing the complaint data, "we believe there is evidence both to question and to reject" Toyota's claim there is no evidence of electronic malfunctions causing sudden acceleration. The authors also called the data on speed control incidents involving Camry models that have not been recalled "particularly troubling."

Toyota officials, while denying an electronics problem, said last week that they will install on new vehicles a fail-safe system that overrides the accelerator anytime a driver brakes.

Lawyers particularly criticized the electronic "black boxes" in Toyotas. They say that the devices could contain data showing why acceleration problems occurred but that the data cannot be downloaded and read by any expert, as is the case with other auto manufacturers.

Toyota says it has only one device in the U.S. to read the data from the black boxes. The company sent an investigator to examine the Avalon in the Southlake crash. That investigator downloaded and provided data to NHTSA investigators.

NHTSA officials did not return a telephone call seeking comment. Texans who have reported sudden acceleration say they are skeptical that movable floor mats and sticking accelerators are the sources of all the problems. Abby Kannappan of Houston was driving her father's 2007 Camry on Interstate 45 near downtown in April when the vehicle suddenly accelerated to more than 65 mph, continuing to accelerate even with her foot off the accelerator.

Kannappan controlled the speed with her brakes, turned onto a side road and shifted into neutral with the engine still racing. In the fall, "it started happening quite frequently," even after the floor mats were removed.

Like many other Toyota owners who have reported acceleration problems, Kannappan repeatedly took the vehicle to a Toyota dealership, only to be told that the dealership couldn't find a problem.

One incident that does seem to fit Toyota's explanations involved Alice Chandler, an Arlington social worker. Chandler bought a used 2004 Camry and drove it for years without a problem. Then last year, it suddenly accelerated on two occasions.

She was driving along Rosedale Street in Fort Worth near Texas Wesleyan University one afternoon, Chandler said, and "all of a sudden the car speeds up. I kept my foot on the brake and kind of veered over into the right lane next to the curb" before getting the car to slow down and eventually stop. "If I'd been close to somebody there would have been an accident."

Chandler took the car to Vandergriff Toyota in Arlington. Asked about the incidents, Chandler said she realized that she had been wearing heavy orthotic shoes that might have moved the floor mats. Vandergriff employees anchored the mats.

Chandler said she hasn't had a problem since but remains fearful after reading about the accidents and other incidents that have prompted the Toyota recalls.

Jennifer Deal, who'd had problems with her Toyota before the August incident, traded hers for a Honda.

"It's the first Toyota I'd had," she said, "and the last one."

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