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Toyota's Unintended Acceleration Problem Actually Human Error?

The latest twist in Toyota's massive recall debacle is the rumor that Toyota is blaming its unintended acceleration problems on simple human error. But preliminary data seems to indicate that it is not just a matter of Toyota using bad drivers as their scapegoat.

Since Toyota's reported spike in unintended acceleration problems and recall of over eight million vehicles, the U.S. Department of Transportation has analyzed dozens of event data recorders (EDRs) or "black boxes" from Toyota vehicles involved in car crashes blamed on sudden acceleration. In most of these instances, the Department of Transportation has found that throttles were wide open and the brakes weren't engaged at the time of the accident -- meaning the drivers mistakenly stepped on the gas pedal rather than the brake.

Toyota's own investigation has revealed similar results, according to company spokesman Mike Michels. In the last five months, Toyota has reviewed about 2,000 reports of unintended acceleration and has determined a variety of causes, including pedal entrapment, sticky pedal, foreign objects in the car and "pedal misapplication." Michels noted that "virtually all" crashes were linked to pushing the accelerator when motorists thought they were pushing the brake pedal.

It is unknown how many EDRs have been read so far. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), no formal data has been reported or conclusions have been drawn regarding Toyota-related crashes. Transportation Department spokeswoman Olivia Alair said that the investigation is still ongoing, "engineers at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are continuing to investigate the possible causes of sudden acceleration, along with the National Academy of Sciences and NASA."

So far NHTSA's investigation has yet to uncover any car defects beyond the two major ones identified by Toyota - sticky accelerators and floor mats that can trap accelerator pedals to the floor. The federal investigation continues to look into potential causes of sudden acceleration.

Human Error is Not Out of Line

The investigation's findings that human error may have played a part in many of these accidents does not seem out of line with past findings. In 1989, NHTSA released a report after investigating unintended acceleration in Audis that concluded human error was often the cause. In the twenty years since the report was released, more vehicles have been equipped with brake-override technology - which stops the car if the brake and gas pedal are pressed at the same time. (Toyota plans to install brake-override systems in all vehicles from now on, beginning with 2011 models).

Additionally, a market analyst for Kelley Blue Book believes that attributing some of the unintended acceleration cases to human error makes sense because, after public attention focused on the issue, "it hasn't been a summer of careening Toyotas."

Neither Toyota nor federal agencies involved in the investigation are writing off all sudden acceleration crashes as a result of driver error, but it is also not being reported at this time that such crashes were due to defective electronics.
Source: Bloomberg Business Week  "Toyota Cites Driver Errors in Acceleration Cases" 7/14/2010 

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