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NHTSA accountability–where should it start? Part 2

The Toyota unintended acceleration issue has demonstrated, determining why systems fail in complex mechanical and software related interactions is no easy matter. NASA was brought in to assist NHTSA on that matter, and they concluded there was no defect in the electronic throttle control system.

Toyota attempted to disarm allegations of many of these accidents as being essentially user error, suggesting that that driver stepped on the wrong foot peddle as they panicked. 

Nonetheless, when a California State Trooper, his wife, 13-year-old daughter and brother-in-law were killed when their Lexus vehicle crashed after accelerating to speeds of more than 120 miles per hour, Toyota was faced with a worst-case scenario.

It was more difficult for Toyota to asset that a state trooper was unaccustomed to the operation of a motor vehicle and that he would have been easily confused or panicked by the acceleration of the vehicle.

The defense in that case was also disadvantaged by the frightening 911 recording of the brother-in-law calling during the final seconds before the fatal crash. After the crash, another driver who had received the vehicle from the dealership as a loaner experienced a similar, out-of-control acceleration by same the vehicle.

The sheriff’s report on the accident suggested it was caused by an improperly sized floor mat placed in the vehicle by the dealership. The catastrophic damage was so great that it was impossible for investigators to examine the other electronic or mechanical systems for potential defects.

While NASA could not find any reproducible software errors and some vehicles seem to have suffered from “simple” problems, like incorrectly sized floor mats, the lack of certainty in the cause of these unintended acceleration accidents remains troubling.

In our next post, we consider what should be done to reduce the likelihood of these incidents.

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