Toyota faces new reports of sudden-acceleration deaths

At least 34 people have died in accidents involving Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles that allegedly accelerated out of control in the past decade, federal safety regulators said Monday, reflecting a sharp jump in the number of motorist complaints being filed in the three weeks since the automaker announced its latest recalls.

The new count from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration includes 13 fatalities reported since Jan. 27, the day after Toyota ordered a sales and production halt of eight models in the U.S. to fix gas pedals that it said can stick and cause unintended acceleration.

An analysis of the data by The Times shows that all but one of the deaths reported to NHTSA by motorists in 2010 actually occurred in prior years -- as far back as 1992 -- suggesting that recent public attention to the issue spurred people to file complaints regarding past incidents. Most of the incidents occurred between 2003 and 2009.

According to accounts filed with NHTSA, Toyota and Lexus vehicles suddenly raced forward, smashing into other cars, buildings and pedestrians.

In addition to the fatalities, federal regulators said 22 people reported injuries from unintended acceleration accidents involving Toyota vehicles, which ranged from cuts and bruises to a woman left in a coma.

The Times first drew attention to the unusually high number of deaths attributed to sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles Nov. 8, when it reported that the 19 fatalities linked to the problem since 2001 was greater than the total for all other automakers combined.

The rise in new complaints did not surprise federal highway safety officials, given the widespread news coverage that accompanied Toyota's decision to halt sales and production to address the gas pedal problem.

"It is normal for NHTSA to receive an increase in consumer complaints after a recall is announced and the public learns of a safety defect," said Olivia Alair, a spokeswoman for the agency. "NHTSA takes every complaint seriously and reviews each one carefully. The agency is quickly gathering more data on all of these additional complaints to help guide our examination of sudden acceleration . . . as well as other safety issues."

The agency generally does not seek to prove or disprove whether sudden acceleration occurred in the accidents, instead using the database of complaints to help identify potential defect trends. The Associated Press first reported the rise in the fatality count Monday.

"We take all customer reports seriously," Toyota said in a statement released Monday. "That's why we are taking steps to implement more stringent quality controls, investigate customer complaints more aggressively, keep open lines of communication with safety agencies and respond more quickly to safety issues we identify."

The automaker has resumed sales and production of the eight models, and its dealers are in the process of installing shims on gas pedals to correct what it calls a defect that could make them stick.

More trouble

Nonetheless, the jump in reported fatalities in its vehicles marks another troubling development for Toyota, which has been furiously attempting to reassure the public about its commitment to safety in the wake of the recent recalls.

And many experts expect the drumbeat of bad news to continue as House and Senate committees prepare for hearings in coming weeks.

Noting the increased fatality total, Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, said federal safety regulators were still finding only the tip of the iceberg.

"We are going to go over 100 without a doubt," Ditlow said. "The only question is what is the true number. So many fatalities don't get attributed to sudden acceleration, especially as you go further back in time before people were paying attention to Toyota."

The company has issued 10 million recall notices on three continents in recent months, with 2 million vehicles subject to more than one recall.

The largest recall, announced last fall, focuses on floor mats that the automaker said can entrap the accelerator pedal. The second recall addresses gas pedals that Toyota said can stick. And last week, Toyota recalled nearly 500,000 of its hybrid vehicles, including the 2010 Prius, because of a brake problem caused by faulty computer software.

This month, both Congress and NHTSA have said they are looking into whether electronic throttle control, which is standard equipment on all Toyota and Lexus vehicles, could play a role in sudden acceleration.

Toyota officials have denied that possibility, pointing to internal and external testing, as well as eight federal investigations, none of which found a throttle defect.

The latest data on fatalities filed as consumer complaints to NHTSA do not reflect all potential deaths from sudden acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles. A number of lawsuits and police reports also indicate that Toyota vehicles suffering runaway acceleration led to fatalities, but those cases have not been registered as complaints in the government database.

The database has been flooded with complaints since the news of the latest recalls, followed by the unusual decision to stop sales and production of eight Toyota models late last month. Nearly 40% of all reported deaths related to runaway Toyotas have come this year.

Toyota, for its part, has not released data from its own internal complaint files on accidents, injuries or deaths alleged to stem from unintended acceleration. The automaker has declined to state how many complaints of the problem have been filed, but in general databases held by manufacturers are orders of magnitude larger than NHTSA's.

Unrecalled models

NHTSA data show that many of the fatality reports involved Toyota models that were not included in any recalls.

For example, a fatal crash on Oct. 13, 2009, in New Hampshire involved a 2005 Highlander, which has not been recalled. Toyota has issued recalls only on 2008-2010 Highlanders.

According to the NHTSA complaint, the car hit a vehicle head-on, killing four people. "Believe car had uncontrolled acceleration," said the complaint, which was filed Jan. 27.

In addition, the data show complaints alleging fatalities involving a Scion tC, and a Lexus GS, neither of which models are included in the recalls. No Scion models have been named in any of the recalls.

Nearly all the sudden acceleration-related fatality complaints on file for Toyota affect vehicles manufactured since the 2002 model year. Only five such allegations are included in vehicles produced prior to that time, the oldest a 1988 Camry that crashed into a brick wall.

The majority of fatalities were in Camry and Lexus ES vehicles, which are built on the same platform and share many components. Both vehicles are subject to the floor mat recall.

A complaint of an August 2008 accident in Chicago alleges that the driver of a Lexus ES 330 had removed the floor mats from the vehicle the morning of a sudden acceleration incident than ended with the sedan striking and killing a pedestrian prior to passing through a fence and into a concrete pillar. According to the complaint, Toyota wrote the driver on Sept. 22, 2008, stating "that the car was operating properly."

Another complaint detailed a 2004 crash in Indiana that took the life of a female driver whose 2003 Camry surged out of control and smashed into a building. The vehicle had less than 7,000 miles on it. A handwritten notation on the complaint, filed shortly after the accident, said "throttle stuck -- engine surged."

Paramedics arriving on the scene, the complaint said, "found the driver with both feet still on the brake pedal."

ken.bensinger @latimes.com

ralph.vartabedian @latimes.com

Times staff writers Zohreen Adamjee and Thomas Suh Lauder contributed to this report.

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