U.S. News Headlines

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Toyota's safety complaints rise

Toyota's string of recalls and fresh investigations into sudden acceleration have triggered a surge of complaints to federal auto safety regulators that linked the problem to 34 deaths, up from 21 prior to the recall.

But the flood of complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also offers few immediate clues to what might be behind any unknown defect in Toyota models.

Since 2004, federal regulators have received complaints of 34 deaths in traffic accidents linked to sudden acceleration problems in Toyota models; 13 of those have been filed since Jan. 22, when Toyota announced its recall of sticking gas pedals.

Of those complaints, a Free Press review finds that 11 deaths come from cases with either eyewitnesses or physical evidence such as a trapped floor mat. The rest often lack hard evidence. Several come from people whose relatives died in accidents with no discernable cause, but who now suspect sudden acceleration played a role.

NHTSA has said it has verified five deaths due to sudden acceleration in Toyotas, including the crash last year in Santee, Calif., that killed four people. All five were tied by the agency to floor mats that could trap gas pedals to the floor, which Toyota has recalled 5.4 million vehicles to fix.

Safety advocates said this month that 27 deaths had been linked to the problems.

Complaints about auto safety issues typically rise sharply after a recall gains widespread attention, as NHTSA typically gets only 10% of the complaints generated by any given problem.

Before the recalls, the agency had received some 2,000 complaints of sudden acceleration. Since Jan. 22, the agency has received another 743 complaints about sudden acceleration and 866 complaints about brakes in the 2010 Prius.