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Driver error findings valid: expert

by Hiroko Nakata

The U.S. auto safety regulator’s recent interim report that found driver error to be the probable cause of most of the sudden acceleration accidents it probed involving Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles confirms the warnings of an American psychologist and ergonomist that motorists failed to use the brakes.

Richard Schmidt, a safety expert and professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a recent telephone interview with The Japan Times that an avalanche of negative media exposure about Toyota’s massive recalls spurred a spike in complaints in the past several months, causing undue damage to the carmaker’s reputation.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s preliminary report “is . . . exactly what I expected. I wasn’t really surprised,” said Schmidt, who worked to resolve cases of unintended acceleration blamed on the Audi 5000 in the 1980s.

“This is good evidence that pedal errors are causing that problem. Maybe not all of them, but certainly a majority of them,” he said.

On Aug. 10, NHTSA released its preliminary findings on 58 crashes in which drivers said their cars suddenly accelerated. In 35 of the cases, the cars’ event data recorders didn’t show any sign that drivers had applied their brakes, according to the report, which was presented to Congress.

The interim report also said there was no new cause of unintended acceleration other than the two flaws Toyota has already identified — floor mat entrapment and sticking gas pedals. The flaws have already caused the recall of more than 8 million Toyota vehicles worldwide.

U.S. lawmakers and media have questioned whether Toyota vehicles have other defects, particularly with its electronic throttle control system. The automaker has repeatedly denied any problem with its electronics and blamed the accidents on jammed floor mats or “sticky” pedals.

NHTSA reportedly said it is too soon to reach a definite conclusion on whether Toyota has solved the problem or whether the electronics could be involved. On Aug. 26, Toyota voluntarily recalled about 1.13 million Corolla and Corolla Matrix vehicles sold in the U.S. to address engine control modules that could cause vehicles to stall at any speed.

Schmidt said the problem is often caused by drivers who wrongfully assume they are hitting the brakes when they are stepping on the gas.

“It is just Audi all over again,” is what Schmidt first thought when the trickle of Toyota complaints turned into a torrent about a year ago, recalling how he helped in the investigation of unintended accelerations blamed on the Audi 5000.

“Because everything was the same. You have the same sort of description of the accidents the drivers said — brakes failed and you had a problem and the accelerator went bad . . . something like that,” said Schmidt, who is not involved in any of the sudden acceleration probes into Toyota but served as a consultant for the firm seven years ago.

In a March 11 opinion piece in The New York Times, Schmidt described how drivers react in panic mode.

“Several researchers hypothesized how a driver, intending to apply the brake pedal to keep the car from creeping, would occasionally press the accelerator instead. Then, surprised that the car moved so much, he would try pressing harder.

“Of course, if his right foot was actually on the accelerator, the throttle would open and the car would move faster. This would then lead the driver to press the ‘brake’ harder still, and to bring about even more acceleration. Eventually, the car would be at full throttle, until it crashed,” he wrote.

In 1989, NHTSA concluded that the unintended accelerations blamed on the Audi 5000 were mostly caused by this kind of pedal error.

Toyota’s problems are probably being magnified by the constant media exposure, Schmidt said, saying he suspects publicity exacerbated the problem.

Complaints about unintended acceleration in Toyotas jumped last year after a horrific crash killed an off-duty highway patrolman and his family in August near San Diego. He was driving a loaner Lexus that shot to extreme speeds as a frantic relative called for help on a cell phone.

“The number of complaints increased tenfold just by having that being in the media,” Schmidt said.

Likewise, back in the 1980s, complaints against Audis jumped after the CBS TV program “60 Minutes” investigated sudden accelerations involving vehicles made by the German automaker, he said.

Toyota’s publicity problems stem in part from the fact that it belatedly admitted gas pedals could get trapped under floor mats and accelerator pedals could get sticky, Schmidt said.

The late response fueled speculation of a Toyota coverup, possibly of a defect in its computerized throttle system, he said.

“Automotive analysts right here were saying, OK, what other things? Pedals sticking under a floor mat can cause this to happen? What else does this Toyota have?” he said.

Toyota also admitted its cars’ internal data recorders were “not reliable,” which could undermine the NHTSA report, Schmidt pointed out.

“Toyota shot themselves in the foot,” he said.

Schmidt said he is doubtful there will be any measures to prevent unintended acceleration in the future.

The “smart pedals” used in BMW, Chrysler, Volkswagen and some new Toyota vehicles deactivates the accelerator when both accelerator and brake are pressed at the same time. Thus application of the brakes overrides any use of the accelerator, he said, though he added that the brakes must be applied.

In its Aug. 10 findings, NHTSA reportedly said that in about half of 35 suspicious cases where the brakes were not applied, the accelerator was pressed right before the crash, suggesting drivers were using that pedal instead of the brakes.

Partial braking occurred in 14 of the cases probed, while one case showed pedal entrapment and another showed that both brake and accelerator pedals had been simultaneously pressed.

The other cases were inconclusive.

Schmidt said two-foot driving, where the right foot only presses the accelerator and the left only the brake, works for some people but is not a solution for everyone. The technique is rarely used in vehicles with an automatic transmission.