California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor and three members of his family were killed when the 2009 Lexus ES 350 they were driving suddenly accelerated, reaching speeds of 120 mph before striking a sport utility vehicle, launching off an embankment, and bursting into flames. Moments before the crash, a passenger made a frantic 911 call telling dispatchers that the car’s accelerator pedal was stuck and the vehicle was out of control. An investigation into the wreck revealed that an all-weather floor mat could have interfered with the accelerator. As a result of this crash, Toyota is instructing owners to remove floor mats in approximately 3.8 million vehicles.
This was not the first Toyota recall of floor mats blamed for unintended acceleration. In September 2008, Toyota launched a recall to replace floor mats in the Lexus ES350 after a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) probe concluded that floor mat interference was the most likely cause of the more than 300 complaints, including at least six incidents involving fatalities. During the last 40 years, the NHTSA has launched nine separate floor mat investigations resulting in 19 floor mat recalls.
But not everyone believes that floor mats are the sole cause. Jeffery Pepski, of Plymouth, Minn., narrowly avoided crashing his 2007 Lexus after the car sped out of control for several miles. While his car was out of control, Pepski said he was able to push up and down on the accelerator pedal with his foot, and he believes the floor mat was not the cause of the car’s malfunction. Another motorist, Richard dePagter, claims that his 2008 Lexus suddenly accelerated to 90 mph while he had the cruise control engaged. He turned off the cruise control and pumped the brakes but nothing happened. DePagter’s car was not equipped with the all-weather floor mats that are part of the latest recall.
Auto-safety advocates who have studied sudden acceleration incidents express skepticism that floor mat interference is the root cause of the problem. Instead, they point to glitches that develop in complex electrical and computer systems in modern vehicles. Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety and co-author of the book, “Sudden Acceleration,” has linked the sudden acceleration phenomenon to the increased use of electronic systems in vehicles.
“What we found is that random incidents of electromagnetic interference can interfere with the controls in the fuel system and open the throttle up,” he said.
Auto-safety advocates believe that the NHTSA and automakers blame floor mats because ferreting out intermittent electronic problems is more difficult to diagnose and presumably more expensive to fix. Sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles has been linked to 16 deaths and 237 injuries in the last six years.<Back