Saturday, 18 July 2015
01 December 2021

«They died in Toyotas, leaving many questions»

2010 April 07

DETROIT —It’s easy to forget that much of the pressure that led to Toyota’s first recall of millions of vehicles in October grew from one highly publicized car accident. The fiery crash near San Diego on Aug. 28 — with a dramatic 911 call from the runaway Lexus caught on tape — killed a California Highway Patrol officer and his wife, daughter and brother-in-law.

In the last moments of the 52-second tape, they tell each other to hold on and pray.

But there are other stories of lives lost, families forever changed, listed anonymously in the complaint database run by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Many incidents predate by years the crash that killed Officer Mark Saylor and his family, and passed with little notice even as they became part of a string of incidents that led to the recalls of nearly 8 million Toyota vehicles over potential unintended acceleration.

These are the most serious cases, but looking at the stories also shows they can be the most difficult for automakers or safety officials to investigate. The driver often is dead. Witnesses are few.

“We are far from knowing … whether individual accidents were caused by the apparent defects that are getting so much attention,” says Ed Higgins, a product liability lawyer with law firm Plunkett Cooney of Detroit.

Toyota says it is investigating each complaint as quickly as possible, but notes NHTSA’s database isn’t easy to navigate. It includes no names or full vehicle identification numbers; automakers can request more data.

“It is important to note that many of the complaints in the NHTSA database, for any manufacturer, lack sufficient detail that could help identify the cause of an accident, or in some cases, even the people involved,” the company said in a statement.

Some trends did emerge from examining the fatal crashes:

•The allegations of acceleration extend across Toyota’s product line: The 25 cases involve nine models and 20 model years, and a majority are not among the millions recalled: Nine of the 25 are on the recall lists.

•Some complaints reveal other factors that likely figured in the crash: Three drivers allegedly were intoxicated (one died at the scene; two face charges).

•Many drivers were older: Twelve of the 25 were over age 60; nine over 70. In each case, family members say their relatives had no medical conditions that would impair their driving. Many called them careful drivers.

•Many of the crashed cars aren’t around to study. Families say that — at least before the recent recalls — they saw no reason to hang onto what was left of the cars and had them scrapped. “We talked to an attorney who said, ‘Why didn’t you lock the car up in a barn?’ ” says Dirk vander Linden, whose mother, Marjorie, 84, died in a 2009 crash. “We didn’t know about the Toyota problems, or we would have.”

•The fatal crashes involve all speeds and types. Eleven were on highways, 10 on town or city streets. Four were in parking lots, including one in which the victims roared off an upper floor of a parking garage.

•Most involve moving forward. Only two fatalities occurred with the car in reverse.

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