WASHINGTON -- Brakes weren't applied by drivers of Toyota vehicles in at least 35 of 58 crashes blamed on unintended acceleration, U.S. auto-safety regulators said Tuesday after studying data recorders.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also saw no evidence of electronics-related causes for the accidents in reviewing the vehicle recorders, known as black boxes, the agency said today in a report to lawmakers.
The preliminary findings bolster Toyota's contentions that there's no evidence of flaws in electronic controls on its vehicles and that motorists in some cases confused the accelerator and brake pedals.
A Toyota spokesman said the company's black boxes are built into the airbag sensor and usually begin recording only when the airbag is deployed.
"The data should also be independently corroborated, e.g., through physical evidence, other research, etc." Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons said in an e-mail Tuesday to Automotive News.
Since November, Toyota has recalled 9.4 million vehicles worldwide, including 7.5 million in the U.S., for acceleration problems involving floor mats and sticky pedals, Lyons said.
“At this early point in its investigation, NHTSA officials have drawn no conclusions about additional causes of unintended acceleration in Toyotas beyond the two defects already known -- pedal entrapment and sticking gas pedals,” the agency said in the report provided for a briefing to lawmakers in Washington.
In addition to the 60 percent of cases where brakes weren't used, NHTSA cited accidents in which the brakes were applied partially or the data recorder failed.
Toyota has conducted more than 4,000 on-site vehicle inspections, and said today it has not found electronic throttle controls to be a cause of unintended acceleration.
"Toyota's own vehicle evaluations have confirmed that the remedies it developed for sticking accelerator pedal and potential accelerator pedal entrapment by an unsecured or incompatible floor mat are effective," the company said.
"We have also confirmed several different causes for unintended acceleration reports, including pedal entrapment by floor mats, pedal misapplication and vehicle functions where a slight increase in engine speed is normal, such as engine idle up from a cold start or air conditioning loads."
In many cases studied by federal regulators, the driver made an allegation of unintended acceleration.
Questions about data
NHTSA said its study was limited to post 2007 vehicles because most Toyota models made before 2007 did not have black boxes that stored pre-crash data.
Most sudden acceleration complaints since 1999 occurred before 2007, according to a February study by Safety Research & Strategies, a research and advocacy firm funded in part by plaintiff lawyers.
A high proportion of these involved 2002-2006 Camrys and 2005-2006 Tacoma pick-up trucks, the study found.
"The idea that Toyota has been exonerated is preposterous given all the facts," said Sean Kane, the firm's president. "This is a small sampling of crashes."
Kane added that the vast majority of sudden acceleration incidents are at too low a speed to activate the black boxes. The NHTSA study is thus limited to an examination of high-speed crashes, he said.
Of the 58 recording devices analyzed, 35 showed that at the moment of the crash impact, the driver hadn't depressed the brake pedal at all, safety officials said. Fourteen more cases showed partial braking. In another nine cases, the brake had been depressed at the "last second" before impact.
The government's preliminary examination also said there were a handful of other crashes where the brake was pressed early and released, or in which the brake and gas pedals were pressed at the same time. There was one case of pedal entrapment by a floor mat.
In five cases, NHTSA said, the electronic recording device failed to work.
The agency is continuing its review of Toyota defects and is working with NASA, the U.S. space agency, and the National Academy of Sciences to probe the cause of the crashes.
Neil Roland and Bloomberg News contributed to this report