Sudden Unintended Acceleration (SUA) Information
What is Sudden Unintended Acceleration?
Sudden unintended acceleration is a form of auto defect. It is a fault with the design or manufacturing of the vehicle that can cause it to accelerate without warning, and without input from the driver. It goes without saying that this can put drivers and passengers in extreme danger.
Unintended Acceleration (UA) has been blamed on many issues including driver error, a sticky accelerator pedal, incorrectly fitting floor mats, and a faulty electronic control system. It is likely that all of these issues have caused an unintended acceleration incident over the span of multiple car manufacturers since 1980.
Incidents before the year 2000 were noted to have most likely come about immediately when the car was shifted from park into drive. Recent defects, however, usually result in unintended acceleration when the car is already in motion. Survivors recall their cars accelerating at full speed and the car not responding to the brakes when applied.
What Causes Unintended Acceleration?
Early incidents of unintended acceleration in the 1950s would happen in GM cars when drivers would accidentally select L in the transmission when they intended to select Reverse. Again in the 80s, many Audi drivers reported their car suddenly lurching forward from a parked or stationary position, but it is suspected that many of these reports were due to driver error, as the brake and gas pedals were situated closer to each other than the average distance on an American car.
Within the last 20 years however, sudden acceleration has occured for a variety of different reasons, most notably in Toyota cars, but also in cars made by other manufacturers such as Ford.
In 2008, the NHTSA ran one of several investigations into unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles, and found that a plastic piece from the driver-side dashboard could come loose and prevent the gas pedal from coming back into its original state from being depressed.
Similar results were seen with floormats that had been moved out of place. In 2009, a Toyota dealership witnessed a car experiencing unintended acceleration without a floor mat, meaning that there was an issue with the electronic control system.
Over the years, many SUA accidents have been caused by all of these factors, but it is thought that the electronic control system issue was the underlying cause of the majority of incidents.
What To Do in Cases of Sudden Acceleration
When your car accelerates and pressing the brake does nothing to slow the car down, your natural reaction might be to panic. Try to remember the following steps:
Make sure your foot is on the brake and keep it pressed down:
Most modern cars will have a brake that overrides the accelerator, but if you happen to have an older car without this feature, you may still be able to slow the car down with enough force on the brake pedal.
If the car is slowing down when you are braking but it has not stopped:
Automatic Transmisison: Put your car into the lowest gear possible. As soon as you've made sure that your foot is firmly on the brakes, put your car into the lowest gear possible. In an automatic transmission car, this will be the "L", or "1" gear. An automatic transmission will utilize engine braking to slow the car down in addition to the brakes being applied. Continue pushing the brakes until the car comes to a complete stop or you are able to put the car in neutral and pull over to the side of the road.
Manual Transmisison: Downshift slowly and safely. If your car is slowing down gradually but you need it to slow down more quickly, downshift through every gear, making sure your engine has time to slow the car down safely without shifting too soon and causing your car to skid. If you have an open road you may just want to put the car in neutral and let it coast to a stop.
If the brake is not working and the car is still accelerating:
Put your car into neutral and pull the e-brake. If the brakes are not working, then a lower gear will not necessarily benefit a car experiencing full acceleration. Put the car in neutral and pull the e-brake to slow the car down faster. This will manually disengage the engine from the transmission and the car will no longer accelerate.
If you are coasting but you still need to slow down suddenly, put the vehicle in park:
Unfortunately this will most likely damage or destroy your transmission, but if the previous steps have not slowed down your car enough, this may be your last option for keeping yourself and your passengers safe.
The History of Sudden Unintended Acceleration
After the GM and Audi incidents of sudden acceleration, which were both determined to be caused by driver error, incidents from the '90s onward involved multiple makes of cars - most notably Toyota, but also from Ford and Kia.
The following are some of the more notable incidents of sudden acceleration:
- December 1998: Denise Keenan and Blake McCarty are killed when a Ford police vehicle accelerates through the crowd at a 'Holidazzle' parade in Minneapolis. Investigators find that the officer responsible had pressed the accelerator instead of the brake accidentally, but that the accident could have been prevented if the shift-lock, which prevents the car from shifting into drive if the foot is not on the brake pedal, was functioning properly. The shift-lock was found to be disengaged due to an electrical error that occured when the van's police lights were flashing.
- September 2007: A 2005 Camry started accelerating while coming off of a highway in Oklahoma. Tire skidmarks show that the driver was braking and the account of the driver asserted that the main brakes were used in addition to the parking brake. The car continued to move and hit an embankment, injuring the driver Jean Bookout and killing her passenger Barbara Schwarz.
- August 2009: Noriko Uno was driving in Southern California when she was struck by a car rolling through a stop sign. Immediately, her car began accelerating without being able to stop and resulted in Uno traveling the wrong way on a street and accelerating at speeds close to 100 miles per hour. Uno collided with several objects and was killed upon impact with a tree. Witnesses say they observed Uno looking terrified as she tried to steer out of the way of traffic and it was determined that Uno's foot was lodged underneath the brake pedal and she was unable to brake effectively. This was the first unintended acceleration trial to go to court against Toyota, with the claim that if Toyota had installed a brake override in the Camry, Uno's attempts to brake would have put the engine in neutral and she would have been safe.
- August 2009: On the same day as Noriko Uno's death, a family of four experienced their 2009 Lexus ES350 accelerating without pressing the gas pedal. The driver was California Highway Patrol officer Mark Saylor, who had many hours of experience on the road and was unlikely to make the mistake of pressing on the gas pedal instead of the brakes. A 911 call was recorded of either Saylor or his brother reporting that the brakes weren't working and that the car was not slowing down. The call ended when the car hit an embankment and crashed, killing all four passengers. This accident prompted Toyota to recall 3.8 million cars so they could replace the floor mats which allegedly made the accelerator pedal stick.
Toyota Unintended Acceleration Cases
Toyota has been at the center of major controversies and recalls relating to sudden unintended acceleration incidents over the years, causing the Japanese vehicle manufacturer to be fined more than a billion dollars by watchdogs.
One of the first Toyota incidents occured in 2002, with a complaint of a Toyota Camry experiencing acceleration when the brakes were fully depressed. Many reported incidents followed, which led to multiple investigations by the NHTSA. Most of these investigations however were closed, citing inconclusive evidence. But enough evidence was eventually collected for the problem of sudden acceleration to be taken seriously.
It was eventually discovered that Toyota knew about their unintended acceleration problems and did nothing to fix them or warn the drivers of the affected cars. Toyota went through multiple court cases for wrongful death and loss of car value cases, and in 2012, ended up paying more than a billion dollars in a class action suit against them by drivers of Toyota and Lexus cars. Toyota was also forced to pay a fine of $1.2 billion to the Department of Justice for their deceptive practices.
Here is the timeline of Toyota SUA cases:
The First Incidents:
There have been scattered reports of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles as early as 1992, when a '92 4Runner accelerated out of control on a winding road. Starting in 2002, a huge influx of complaints started coming in regarding Toyota car engines surging when the brake pedals were depressed, specifically on the 2002 Camry model.
Several appeals were made to NHTSA asking the organization to investgate Toyota and Lexus models, starting in 2003, but the original investigations came to nothing.
Petitions and Investigations:
Despite many investigations into factors that might cause unintended acceleration, the NHTSA was unable to find evidence of car components contributing to the problem until 2007. A large scale recall of cars was eventually issued from 2009-2011.
Even then, there were still no findings of any electronic defects in the Toyota vehicles, and it began to look like pedal entrapment by floor mats and panel trim was the main culprit of sudden unintended acceleration incidents.
It later turned out that this was not the case. But at first, investigators were satisfied that there were no electronic issues, as per Toyota's findings and explanation.
Floor Mat Recalls
One of the first major Toyota recalls of this period was not prompted by an investigation, but ended up setting the stage for more recalls to come.
Of its own accord, Toyota discovered an issue that allowed the driver's side carpet to become loose and interfere with the gas pedal. The company issued an unprompted recall of more than 367,000 cars.
The Saylor Incident:
For several years SUA was forgotten. But in 2009, a catastrophic fatal crash brought unintended acceleration back into the spotlight.
California Highway Patrol officer Mark Saylor was driving with his family when their car sped out of control. They crashed into an embankment while on the phone to police. The fatal crash kiled everyone in the vehicle.
The Saylor crash was traced back to another floor mat issue, and this time 8 million vehicles were recalled. Toyota announced that the problem had been fixed, but it was later revealed that this was a deliberate attempt to mislead customers.
The Truth Emerges:
In 2010, freelance translator Betsy Benjaminson was assigned to review and translate 1,500 documents from Toyota regarding SUA. In doing so, she discovered that Toyota was hiding information regarding the defects, and had even lied to NHTSA and Congress.
The translator turned whistleblower, and released information about the flawed electronic throttle control system in a public statement. This finally forced Toyota to take responsibility for the dangerous defects.
Fees, Settlements, and Fines:
By the end of 2014, Toyota had been forced to pay out billions of dollars for issues related to unintended acceleration.
- In April 2010, the DOT issued a $16.4 million penalty against Toyota for hiding a sticky pedal problem in their cars and waiting 4 months to report it.
- In December 2010, Toyota paid $32.4 million in civil penalties for the way it handled floor mat recalls and for not notifying the NHTSA about a steering defect.
- In November 2012, the manufacturer paid $25.5 million to its shareholders who lost value in their stock due to Toyota's recalls.
- In December 2012, Toyota paid another $17.35 million fine for failing to report a safety defect in a timely manner.
- At the same time, Toyota settled a class action lawsuit for $1.2-1.6 billion dollars. This suit was brought against them by Toyota drivers who felt that their car had lost value as a result of the recent UA problems.
- On March 19th, 2014, the Department of Justice levied a landmark $1.2 billion financial penalty against Toyota for lying to NHTSA regulators and the U.S. Congress, and for willfully misleading the public about the status of their cars and the unintended acceleration problem.
While Toyota has rebounded and is now once again considered a trusted car manufacturer, in addition to the many fines, it has paid out millions of dollars to settle personal injury cases related to sudden unintended acceleration. Contact the auto defect attorneys of Bisnar Chase if you nhave experienced an accident due to vehicle manufacturer negligence.