Ford Had 20 Acceleration Deaths as Regulators Cited Human Error
By Jeff Green, Margaret Cronin Fisk and Angela Greiling Keane
March 15 (Bloomberg) — U.S. regulators have tracked more deaths in vehicles made by Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group LLC and other companies combined than by Toyota Motor Corp. during three decades of unintended acceleration reviews that often blamed human error.
Fifty-nine of 110 fatalities attributed to sudden acceleration in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration records occurred in vehicles other than those sold by Toyota, whose recalls have drawn widespread attention to the issue, according to data compiled for Bloomberg News by the NHTSA.
The agency received 15,174 complaints involving unintended acceleration in the past decade and has run 141 investigations of the phenomenon since 1980, closing 112 of them without corrective action. NHTSA’s repeated conclusion that crashes occurred because drivers mistakenly stomped the accelerator became a policy position that caused investigators to take complaints of runaway vehicles less seriously than they should have, safety advocates say.
“The agency had made a determination that this was primarily a human factor, driver error, and that’s outside NHTSA’s purview,” said Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator. “The Toyota case has brought new scrutiny to other factors, and NHTSA has to look at other causes.” Claybrook is also president emeritus of Public Citizen, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group that has sued automakers seeking crash information.
NHTSA, which is responsible for ensuring the safety of motor vehicles in the U.S., hasn’t previously disclosed the non- Toyota deaths. After Toyota’s 51, Ford and Chrysler vehicles were linked to the most deaths — 20 for Ford and 12 for Chrysler.
Ford hasn’t identified any specific safety trends in its vehicles, said Said Deep, a Ford spokesman. In terms of the broader issue of sudden acceleration, “It is the agency’s obligation, if NHTSA believes it’s appropriate, that they investigate it,” he said.
The NHTSA death database included crashes of 56 different models from various years. Among the models generating multiple complaints were Chrysler Jeep Grand Cherokee vehicles that took off and crashed after idling at car washes or service stations and Ford vehicles in which the speed control allegedly failed to disengage or otherwise surged.
‘Rolled Their Eyes’
According to data compiled by Bloomberg News, the average time NHTSA spent investigating reports of unintended acceleration dropped in each of the past three decades. Agency probes of the issue averaged 221 days before 1990, 196 days from 1990 to 2000 and 161 days in the past decade.
Some NHTSA employees seem to dismiss acceleration complaints, U.S. Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, said during a hearing last month. A Toyota employee who visited NHTSA in August 2007 wrote that the agency’s staff “laughed or rolled their eyes in disbelief” when he told them he was at their offices as part of a sudden acceleration allegation involving floor mats, according to an e-mail Waxman produced.
NHTSA’s approach to unintended acceleration was shaped by a 1989 report the agency employees prepared on the issue, before electronic systems that now guide most automotive functions were common, former staff members say. The study, prompted by complaints of uncontrolled acceleration in Audi 5000 sedans, concluded that human error was often the cause, in Audi and other vehicles.
“That report was given a lot of weight” by NHTSA defect investigators, said Allan Kam, former NHTSA senior enforcement attorney, who retired in 2000 after 25 years. “They regarded it as the gold standard. They developed this institutional bias that was extremely skeptical of consumers’ complaints of sudden unintended acceleration.”
‘Into the Weeds’
As reports of deaths linked to acceleration complaints continue, lawmakers and safety advocates are urging NHTSA to drop its reliance on the 1989 report and start over. At a Feb. 23 congressional hearing, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who oversees NHTSA, promised to renew the agency’s focus on unintended acceleration and “get into the weeds” to find a solution.
NHTSA Administrator David Strickland told a U.S. House subcommittee March 11 that his agency has opened eight investigations since he took the job in January and he plans to use his authority to get to the bottom of safety issues.
“Safety is our top priority and I am committed to getting to the bottom of these unintended acceleration issues,” Strickland said in an e-mailed response to questions from Bloomberg News. “That’s why we’re undertaking a new comprehensive review that will look at a wide range of possible causes of unintended acceleration, including potential electronics problems.”
LaHood had no additional comment on the NHTSA death statistics, a spokeswoman said.
The 17 recalls of passenger cars for sudden acceleration complaints since 1980 included fixes for throttle cables that could stick or other mechanical flaws. The actions, which involved about 1.7 million vehicles of the 442 million sold over that period, didn’t stop complaints of deaths or injury.
The 110 deaths attributed to unintended acceleration were reported to NHTSA by family and friends of victims, their lawyers or others.
Lawyers suing automakers say they have identified at least 28 additional deaths related to unintended acceleration that are not included in NHTSA’s count.
One of the earliest sudden acceleration deaths in the NHTSA records prepared for Bloomberg News came on June 7, 1995, when a 1988 Lincoln Town Car in Mountain Home, Arkansas, accelerated in a parking lot and hit two boys, killing one and requiring the amputation of the other boy’s leg, according to a 1999 letter filed to the agency by attorney Sandy S. McMath in Little Rock, Arkansas.
McMath asked NHTSA to review its 1989 acceleration report to consider whether electronics that managed cruise control in Ford and other vehicles might be a cause of some unintended acceleration. NHTSA reviewed the request for two months and rejected it, according to agency records. NHTSA had previously studied complaints of sudden acceleration in 1985 Town Cars in 1987 without taking action.
“They refused to reopen the matter,” McMath said in an interview. “We felt it was administrative malpractice.”
During its investigation, McMath said NHTSA never contacted him. “They never talked to the Reverend and Mrs. Chapman, the parents of the boy who was hurt.”
The 1995 Arkansas death was the first of 20 fatalities involving Ford vehicles in NHTSA data supplied to Bloomberg. Among the 51 fatalities in Toyota vehicles, 36 were reported after Oct. 5 of last year, when widespread publicity of unintended acceleration in the company’s cars began.
“We monitor the performance of our vehicles on an ongoing basis and we have not seen a safety trend,” said Deep, the Ford spokesman. “But like all manufacturers, we do receive these kind of allegations.”
NHTSA has also fielded repeated complaints about unintended acceleration in Grand Cherokees.
In March 2002, two expert witnesses sent NHTSA an 84-page report on crashes involving Grand Cherokees, asking the agency to reconsider its 1989 sudden acceleration findings. The report was prompted by lawsuits against drivers who had been sued because their Grand Cherokees crashed after accelerating out of control.
That 2002 report pointed to 665 acceleration complaints involving 1987 to 1998 Jeep models and about 300 complaints each for 1993, 1994 and 1995 models. Many of the complaints focused on cars that accelerated unexpectedly from car washes and service stations, said David Bizzak, an engineer who co-wrote the report.
Chrysler had recalled Jeeps from 1989 and 1990 because of a sensor that could fail and cause a high idle, the 2002 study said. It had also recalled 1984-to-1995 models to add a “shift interlock,” requiring drivers to apply the brake before they can put the car in gear.
In September 2002, NHTSA denied the request to reconsider causes of sudden acceleration. The agency noted fixes Chrysler had made in Jeep recalls and also concluded that driver error, applying the accelerator rather than the brake, was a factor in Grand Cherokee complaints.
Doug Newman, a Milford, Connecticut, car-wash owner, said he has had four sudden acceleration incidents at his businesses since 2000, all involving Jeep Grand Cherokees. “Of the millions of cars I’ve washed, I never had another incident,” Newman said in an interview.
On Jan. 30, a car-wash employee in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was killed after a 2006 Jeep Grand Cherokee suddenly accelerated and pinned her against a wall, according to a statement a co- worker gave to police investigating the incident.
The co-worker was at the wheel of the Jeep when the accident happened and told police the engine revved when the vehicle was in neutral and took off when he put it into gear.
A similar death in Hamden, Connecticut, in February 2006 prompted the state’s attorney general to ask NHTSA to re- consider Jeep acceleration cases. NHTSA rejected the request in September 2006.
In a statement, Chrysler said studies by NHTSA, Japan’s Ministry of Transportation, Transport Canada and dozens of independent analyses all reached the conclusion that the incidents are caused by driver error.
‘Brakes Always Win’
“Few motor vehicle defect allegations have been more exhaustively investigated and more definitively refuted than claims of sudden unintended acceleration when it involves a shift from park or neutral into a gear,” Chrysler said in a statement.
“Thorough testing to investigate reports of unintended acceleration demonstrates one overriding fact: When the brakes are applied, the vehicle stops; the brakes always win,” the company said in the statement. “Even if the accelerator is nailed to the floor, a driver can stop the vehicle by applying the brakes.”
NHTSA’s repeated denials of petitions seeking new reviews of unintended acceleration have discouraged plaintiffs’ lawyers from reporting new acceleration cases to the agency, said attorney Christopher Brinkley in West Virginia, who has represented plaintiffs in sudden acceleration cases.
“Every time a defect petition was filed with NHTSA and it was denied, it would end up on the defense exhibit list,” said Brinkley, who lost a trial against Chrysler in which NHTSA findings were introduced. “It could absolutely be used against us in court.”
Stepping Up Efforts
LaHood has said in congressional hearings that NHSTA didn’t ignore past complaints and would redouble efforts to consider more causes, such as electronic defects.
NHTSA’s focus remains on Toyota vehicles. The highest death toll for a particular Toyota model was 17 in Camrys. NHTSA records show seven fatalities in Toyota’s Avalon, five in the Lexus ES330, five in the Highlander SUV and three in its Sienna minivan.
“NHTSA’s point of view on this is very similar to ours: The large majority of these cases are closed without finding any evidence of a link to unintended acceleration,” said John Hanson, a spokesman for Toyota’s U.S. unit.
To address the most recent incidents of sudden acceleration, the U.S. will probably need to rewrite the standard for vehicle accelerators, last updated in 1973, and write a new rule requiring a brake override that can shut off uncontrolled acceleration, said Claybrook, the former NHTSA administrator.
New rules may also require a “kill” switch in the vehicles for emergency shutdown in sudden acceleration incidents, she said. NHTSA will probably need new staff members or have to hire outside experts, Claybrook said.
NHTSA has two electrical specialists among its 125 engineers and plans to hire one more, LaHood told a congressional committee on Feb. 23. The agency can bring on additional outside expertise as needed, he said at that time.
Toyota is retrofitting seven current models with software that shuts off power from the engine to the drive train if it receives signals both to accelerate and brake, and is considering also adding the software to all “compatible” models, Bob Carter, U.S. group vice president for sales, said this month. The company has said all Toyota models worldwide will be equipped with advanced brake-override systems starting in 2011.
Toyota ADR shares have lost 8.5 percent of their value this year. Ford has gained 33 percent in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. Toyota shares were little changed on March 12, while Ford rose 3.3 percent. Toyota’s market value is still three times Ford’s.
General Motors Co., Chrysler, Ford, Nissan Motor Co. and European automakers such as Daimler AG have brake override systems in newer models and are increasing their use. Mazda Motor Corp. said it will add the technology as well.
Jim Lentz, Toyota’s president of U.S. sales, told a congressional committee Feb. 23 that the automaker doesn’t know the specific cause for as many as 70 percent of the complaints about sudden acceleration made to a company hotline.
The Japanese automaker has hired Menlo Park, California, testing firm Exponent Failure Analysis Associates to study its designs for other defects that may be causing the incidents, and the automaker is studying continued complaints from vehicles already recalled and fixed.
‘Experience and Technology’
Making a determination of whether a defect in the vehicle was a factor “comes down to both the level of experience and technology that you have in developing the systems to begin with,” Toyota spokesman Hanson said. “Toyota has quite a bit of experience developing these systems and testing them. Toyota does really understand these systems very well,” he said.
Complaints also showed four deaths for Nissan’s Maxima and three deaths for several models from Honda Motor Co., Ford and Chrysler.
Regulators have also included age of drivers as a factor in unintended acceleration cases. An August 2004 report by the National Transportation Safety Board considered the age of the 86-year-old driver when it evaluated a sudden acceleration accident in July of that year that resulted in the death of 10 pedestrians at a Santa Monica, California, farmers market. Ultimately, NTSB said it couldn’t determine age was a factor.
Among 19 fatal Toyota accidents where the driver’s age is known, 10 were older than 60 and five were older than 80, which may indicate drivers who were more likely to depress the wrong pedal or not brake with enough force. The median age of drivers in fatal accidents in 2008 was 39, according to U.S. fatal accident data. The median age, where the data was available in the Toyota crashes, was 61.
NHTSA will need to fundamentally change its approach to sudden acceleration if the outcome is going to be different than in the 1989 study or subsequent individual probes, said Kam, the former NHTSA official.
“They bought the manufacturers’ response hook, line and sinker,” he said. “The manufacturers said it was impossible — it couldn’t happen, so the reports by consumers weren’t credible. They were calling it pedal misapplication, even after talking to consumers.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Jeff Green in Southfield, Michigan, at firstname.lastname@example.org; Margaret Cronin Fisk in Detroit at email@example.com; Angela Greiling Keane in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last Updated: March 15, 2010 00:59 EDT
John Paul Strong
John Paul Strong combines his two decades of automotive marketing experience with a team of more than 140 professionals as owner and CEO of Strong Automotive Merchandising.