Toyota Kept Quite About Crash Data

Written by Andrew Traub

March 5, 2010

Toyota has for years blocked access to data stored in devices similar to airline “black boxes” that could explain crashes blamed on sudden unintended acceleration, according to an Associated Press review of lawsuits nationwide and interviews with auto crash experts.

The AP investigation found that Toyota has been inconsistent — and sometimes contradictory — in revealing what the devices record and don’t record, including critical data about whether the, brake or accelerator pedals were depressed at the time of a crash.

By contrast, most other automakers routinely allow more open access to information from their event data recorders.

The Associated Press also found that Toyota:

  • Has frequently refused to provide key information sought by crash victims and survivors.
  • Uses proprietary software in its recorders. Until this week, only a single laptop in the U.S. contained the software needed to read the data after a crash.
  • Either settled or provided printouts with the key columns blank, when pressed to provide recorder information in some lawsuits.

Toyota’s “black box” information is emerging as a critical legal issue amid the recall of 8 million vehicles by the world’s largest automaker. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said this week that 52 people have died in crashes linked to accelerator problems, triggering an avalanche of lawsuits.

In addition, the number of post-repair complaints is rising. The government said Thursday that it has received more than 60 complaints from Toyota drivers who say their cars have sped up by themselves even after being fixed to correct the problem.

The highway safety agency said it is contacting every owner to learn more about the consumer reports. The complaints have not been independently verified.

When Toyota was asked by the Associated Press to explain what exactly its recorders collect, a company statement said Thursday that the devices record data from five seconds before until two seconds after an air bag is deployed in a crash.

The statement said information is captured about vehicle speed, the accelerator’s angle, gear shift position, whether the seat belt was used and the angle of the driver’s seat.

There was no initial mention of brakes a key point in the sudden acceleration problem. When the Associated Press went back to Toyota to ask specifically about brake information, Toyota responded that its recorders do record “data on the brake’s position and the antilock brake system.”

But that does not square with information that attorneys obtained in a deadly crash last year in Southlake, which is in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and in a 2004 wreck in Indiana that killed an elderly woman.

In the Texas crash, where four people died when their 2008 Avalon ripped through a fence, hit a tree and flipped into an icy pond, a recorder readout obtained by police listed as “off” any information on acceleration or braking.

In the Indiana crash, 77-year-old Juanita Grossman told relatives before she died that she was practically standing with both feet on the brake pedal but could not-stop her 2003 Camry from slamming info a building. Records confirm that emergency personnel found Grossman with both feet on the brake pedal.

A Toyota representative told the family’s attorneys there was “no sensor that would have preserved information regarding the accelerator and brake positions at the time of impact,” according to a summary of the case provided by Safety Research & Strategies Inc., a Rehoboth, Mass. based company that does vehicle safety research for attorneys, engineers, government and others.

One attorney in the Texas case contends in court documents that Toyota may have de literately stopped allowing its recorders to collect critical information so the Japanese automaker would not be forced to reveal it in court cases.

“This goes directly to defendants’ notice of the problem and willingness to cover up the, problem,” said E. Todd Tracy, who had been suing automakers for 20 years.

Randy Roberts, an attorney for the driver in that case, said he was surprised at how little information the Avalon’s recorder contained.

“When I found out the Toyota black box was so uninformative, I was shocked,” Roberts said.

Toyota refused to comment on Tracy’s allegations because it is an ongoing legal matter but said the company does share recorder information with government regulators.

“Because the EDR system is an experimental device and is neither intended, nor reliable, for accident reconstruction, Toyota’s policy is to download data only at the direction of law enforcement, NHTSA or a court order,” the Toyota statement said.

In many cases, attorneys and crash experts say recorder data could help explain what happened in the moments before a crash by detailing the positions of the gas and brake pedals as well as the engine’s revolutions per minute.

Yet, some crash experts say Toyota shouldn’t bear too much criticism for failing to capture large amounts or specific kinds of data, because recorder systems were initially built for air bag deployment and not to reconstruct wrecks. They also vary widely from vehicle model to model, Haight said.

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