Panel hears from unintended acceleration victims

AP News
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Posted: Oct 12, 2010 5:27 PM
Panel hears from unintended acceleration victims

A government panel looking into problems with unintended acceleration in vehicles, a key issue in Toyota's massive recalls, heard from car owners on Tuesday who said they suddenly lost control of their automobiles _ and no one can explain why.

Members of a National Academy of Sciences panel listened as several car owners described harrowing tales of their vehicles bolting as they drove along highways or maneuvered through parking lots. The cases, involving both Toyotas and cars built by other manufacturers, often remained unsolved.

"I was frantically stepping on the brake with both feet, trying to bring it to a halt," said Bob Tevis, whose 2008 Audi 8L crashed into a garage ticket machine and another car as he pulled into a Summit, N.J., hospital. Tevis, who spoke to the committee by phone, said a vehicle inspector could find nothing wrong with the sedan's computer system and the dealership told him there was nothing they could do.

The panel is reviewing potential causes of unintended acceleration in vehicles across the entire auto industry and expects to issue its findings in fall 2011. The review was prompted by Toyota's recall of more than 10 million vehicles worldwide because of problems with sticking accelerator pedals and gas pedals becoming trapped by floor mats.

Some Toyota owners said they were baffled by what caused their cars to suddenly accelerate and remained adamant that it wasn't an issue addressed by the recalls.

Richard Zappa of Oceanside, N.Y., said his 2010 Toyota Corolla was so sluggish he was forced to step down hard on the accelerator pedal just to hit speeds of 60 to 65 miles per hour on the highway. But in late September, as he was driving along the Northern State Parkway, he stepped down on the gas pedal and it wouldn't snap back until he slammed on the brakes.

Zappa said it wasn't a matter of the pedal getting stuck in the floor mat and he's convinced it involved some other problem. "The gas pedal was stuck firm down. There was no carpet over this accelerator. I don't care what they say," Zappa said by conference call.

Toyota has said their recalls have directly addressed the problems of sticking gas pedals and floor mat issues. The company says it has made progress in responding to the safety woes and established engineering teams to examine cars that owners claim sped up on their own.

The Japanese automaker said last week it has not found any link to electronic problems _ a potential culprit raised by safety groups _ after reviewing 4,200 vehicles in which owners alleged acceleration problems.

Separately, the Transportation Department and NASA have been investigating the Toyota cases. In August, the department said it had not uncovered an electronic problem in runaway Toyotas, citing research into event data recorders, or vehicle black boxes.

Government investigators studied the black boxes of 58 vehicles in which sudden acceleration was reported. In 35 of the 58 cases reviewed, the data recorders showed no brakes were applied, suggesting driver error could be to blame. The investigation continues and the government has not reached any conclusions.

Safety advocates told the panel on Tuesday that the government had relied upon event data recorders that could be flawed or fail to tell the whole story.

William Rosenbluth, a Virginia-based automotive safety investigator, said many of the readings on the 58 data recorders were not consistent with other details of the crashes.

"The EDR data alone may not be reliable," Rosenbluth said. "It's consistency and accuracy has to be confirmed."