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A driven pursuit of a story

February 3, 2010 | 12:27 pm
Toyota1 Southern California is known for its car culture, so it’s fitting that an investigation into what has become a massive worldwide recall of Toyota vehicles has been pursued by reporters at the Los Angeles Times.

Reporters Ken Bensinger and Martin Zimmerman first wrote about an upcoming recall by Toyota on Sept. 30 that blamed floor mats for causing a gas pedal to stick. This came in the wake of a horrific crash near San Diego in August that killed an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer and three members of his family after his Lexus sped out of control.

In the months since that initial recall, Bensinger and colleague Ralph Vartabedian have delved into the automaker’s safety record, possible engineering faults that may have led to some vehicles’ sudden acceleration, and the company’s handling of complaints. Their work has been comprehensive, drawing credit in a Wall Street Journal editorial Saturday about Toyota’s third and most recent recall related to sudden acceleration:
In its most recent recall, Toyota further proposes a software change to allow a foot on the brake to close the throttle of runaway cars. Here the company creeps closer to the allegation made by trial lawyers and several investigative pieces in the Los Angeles Times, namely that an unidentified circuitry or software glitch is to blame for a rash of runaway Toyotas and Lexuses.

Bensinger and Vartabedian have found that sudden acceleration incidents involving Toyota-made cars and trucks have claimed 19 lives since the 2002 model year, which federal officials say is more than all other manufacturers combined.

Though Toyota’s initial recall was focused on floor mats, Bensinger and Vartabedian were skeptical that mats alone could be the cause. As they reported Oct. 18:

The tragedy Aug. 28 was at least the fifth fatal crash in the U.S. over the last two years involving runaway Toyota and Lexus vehicles made by Toyota Motor Corp. It is also among hundreds of incidents of sudden acceleration involving the company's vehicles that have been reported to Toyota or the federal government, according to an examination of public records by The Times.

“Toyota has blamed the incidents -- apart from those caused by driver error -- on its floor mats, asserting that if they are improperly installed they can jam open the accelerator pedal. A month after the [August]  crash, Toyota issued its biggest recall in company history, affecting 3.8 million vehicles in model years as far back as 2004. But auto safety experts believe there may be a bigger problem with Toyota vehicles than simply the floor mats.

On Nov. 8, Bensinger and Vartabedian took federal safety investigators to task. Their review of federal records found that investigators had excluded or dismissed the majority of complaints of Toyota and Lexus owners that their vehicles had suddenly accelerated.

Toyota’s recall was expanded on Nov. 27 to include the gas pedals on 4.2 million vehicles.

Another investigation by Bensinger and Vartabedian was published Nov. 29, pointing to a potential cause for the sudden acceleration:

The Times found that complaints of sudden acceleration in many Toyota and Lexus vehicles shot up almost immediately after the automaker adopted the so-called drive-by-wire system over the last decade. That system uses sensors, microprocessors and electric motors -- rather than a traditional link such as a steel cable -- to connect the driver's foot to the engine.

For some Toyota models, reports of unintended acceleration increased more than fivefold after drive-by-wire systems were adopted, according to the review of thousands of consumer complaints filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The [August] crash and others like it across the country, they say, point to a troubling possibility: that Toyota's ignition, transmission and braking systems may make it difficult for drivers to combat sudden or unintended accelerations and safely recover, regardless of their cause.

The two reporters were back in December with a number of reports, including a look at how Toyota has dealt with safety problems in recent years. Among their findings:

  • The automaker knew of a dangerous steering defect in vehicles including the 4Runner sport utility vehicle for years before issuing a recall in Japan in 2004. But it told regulators no recall was necessary in the U.S. despite having received dozens of complaints from drivers. Toyota said a subsequent investigation led it to order a U.S. recall in 2005.
  • Toyota has paid cash settlements to people who say their vehicles have raced out of control, sometimes causing serious accidents, according to consumers and their attorneys. Other motorists who complained of acceleration problems with their vehicles have received buybacks under lemon laws.
  • Although the sudden acceleration issue erupted publicly only in recent months, it has been festering for nearly a decade. A computerized search of NHTSA records by The Times has found Toyota issued eight previous recalls related to unintended acceleration since 2000, more than any other automaker.

Toyota announced a third recall related to sudden acceleration on Jan. 21. In doing so, Bensinger noted:

Toyota has for the first time acknowledged that a mechanical problem could cause its vehicles to accelerate out of control.

Toyota2 On Jan. 26, Toyota ordered that sales and production of eight of its models be halted because of problems with gas pedals causing sudden acceleration. On Friday, Congress announced that it would hold hearings into the automakers’ handling of complaints. And Tuesday, federal officials announced new investigations of the electronic throttle system in Toyota and Lexus vehicles -- the possible culprit that Bensinger and Vartabedian identified in November.

Avanidhar Subrahmanyam of Los Angeles complimented the coverage: “Let me say what a pleasure and honor it is to live in this city with a newspaper that does such fearless, tenacious journalism that actually has a material impact on automobile safety (Toyota recalls).”

Reader Natalie Chang of Pasadena added, “Just want to commend you on your continuing investigation and coverage of the runaway Toyotas. You have not let up, and made Toyota finally take some action.”

-- Deirdre Edgar

Twitter: @LATreadersrep

Top photo: Toyota Matrix vehicles on a lot in Colorado. Credit: David Zalubowski / Associated Press. Bottom photo: An employee at Toyota of Hollywood marks a vehicle as not for sale. Credit: Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times.


Q&A: What to do if your vehicle suddenly accelerates

Q&A: What Toyota owners should know

NBC Nightly News interview with Ken Bensinger on the Toyota recalls

Fox Business News interview with Ken Bensinger on Toyota's repairs

CJR: Los Angeles Times was first and all alone on Toyota story