Last Updated May 7, 2010 3:27 PM EDT
Congress is currently holding hearings on auto safety, clearly inspired by Toyota's acceleration agonies and other problems that have led to nine million recalled cars since September. Toyota (TM) says it would welcome stronger standards, but when it comes to the electronic throttles that might be at fault -- well, the company's still not going there.
Representative Henry Waxman's House subcommittee is considering bills that would require new cars to have brake interlock systems to prevent runaway situations, and black box recorders that can tell us what happened right before and during accidents. Toyota has acted proactively to install the interlocks on many models. But it has also been selective about which vehicles to recall for sudden acceleration.
The Lexus RX350 has not been recalled, but perhaps it should be. "I felt very confident about my car, which I loved, because it was not on the recall list," Jean Cheever told me. She is a 66-year-old suburban Philadelphia grandmother and the owner of a 2008 Lexus RX350. She loved her car right up to March 18, when she says it ran away with her as she was backing up with her one- and three-year-old grandchildren in the back seat.
Cheever says she put the car in reverse and it "just bolted out of the driveway in reverse on its own, engine racing. The car was moving like a missile into the cul-de-sac." Cheever said she doesn't think she ever touched the gas pedal. She attempted to put the car into neutral, but instead engaged drive, which sent the car hurtling forward toward her daughter's house. She swerved into a neighbor's yard and finally stopped the car (still with the kids strapped in back) by running it sideways into a tree. The Lexus was totaled. "It was very scary," said Cheever.
In an April 16 letter from Nekii Montgomery of Toyota Motor Sales, the company said it inspected Cheever's car -- including the brakes, accelerator pedal and floormats -- in a local salvage yard. "The accelerator operated smoothly and returned to its idle position without binding," the letter said. "The inspection showed the brake system was in good condition and had no defects. The driver's side floor mat was properly secured on the left side, but not on the right side--[O]ur inspection determined that this incident was not a result of any type of manufacturer design or defect."
A call to Montgomery was redirected to Toyota spokesman John Hanson, who did not return a phone call.
Also in March, Nancy and Daniel Murtha of Cortlandt Manor, New York sued Toyota for the wrongful death of their five-year-old son in an unintended acceleration incident, also in a 2008 Lexus RX350, that occurred in July. Nancy Murtha, who was driving, hit a rock wall, which caused severe injuries to son Jake, who died hours later.
Plantiffs' counsel Robert Nelson chided Toyota for not incorporating a brake override system in the Lexus, and faulted Toyota's electronic throttle control system -- which the company has adamantly defended.
Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, testified at Waxman's hearing Thursday. He told me in an interview that the Lexus RX350 should be recalled. "Yes, we think it should be," he said. "It is our position that all Toyota and Lexus vehicles with electronic throttle control should be recalled."
Ditlow said the RX350 has had relatively low sales, and not as many unintended acceleration claims as other models. "It's not a Camry," he said. According to data gathered as part of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's "Early Warning Reporting System" through the fourth quarter of 2009, there were nine death or injury claims involving "speed controls components" on Lexus RX models between 2003 and 2008.
Rik Paul, auto editor of Consumer Reports, told me, "Toyota and NHTSA should look at these cases and see how they are related to sudden acceleration. It would be premature for the agency to issue a recall based just on these reports."
Lexus has just been through a bad experience with the larger GX460 SUV, which was rated "Don't Buy: Safety Risk" by Consumer Reports last month because of an electronic stability control fault. The GX was recalled, the software updated, and CR lifted its warning late this week.
"This is what you want to see happen with an auto safety problem," Paul said. "The issue was discovered before there were any injuries, and the automaker acted aggressively to fix the problem -- all in less than a month."