This week, The Wall Street Journal reported on the first set of Toyota “runaway” incidents investigated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Citing unidentified sources, the Journal reports that of the 75 accidents NHTSA has reviewed, one case involved a floor mat causing the gas pedal to become stuck. All of the others appear to be “stepped on the gas” situations; the cars’ data recorders indicated that gas was fully engaged but the brake wasn’t, and there was no evidence found in those cases of the car malfunctioning.
NHTSA and the Department of Transportation dispute the Journal report, deny that NHTSA provided the information for the article, and assert that Toyota has planted it. The DOT reports that NHTSA’s investigation is not complete and that it will not issue a report until it has finished.
If the Journal article is accurate, it suggests that there may not be a software problem in Toyota cars. At least one driver disputes the report on her car. She said she looked down before the incident and saw her foot still on the brake.
Until the NHTSA investigation is completed, I wouldn’t be surprised to see lawyers asking to have the data recorders tested. Toyota uses a design that can have data lost if the battery stops, so the quality of the recording could be compromised. NHTSA has been looking at recent accidents to try to get the best records it can.
If the absence of a software problem is confirmed, that leaves open the two situations that led to the initial Toyota recalls: the floor mats that interfered with the gas pedal, and pedals that didn’t disengage properly. The Journal story doesn’t dispute these issues. On the other hand, if you haven’t brought your car in yet to correct the mats and gas pedal, you’re probably partly at fault for not correcting the problem if there is an accident now, and that is likely to reduce a settlement or award.