Toyota Acceleration Problem Caused By Driver Error ?

Remember all those suddenly accelerating Toyotas ? Now, we're learning the rest of the story.

According to a newly released independent report, the sudden acceleration problems that Toyota vehicles were supposedly experiencing earlier this year may have been caused by driver error after all:

The U.S. Department of Transportation has analyzed dozens of data recorders from Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles involved in accidents blamed on sudden acceleration and found that at the time of the crashes, throttles were wide open and the brakes were not engaged, people familiar with the findings said.

The results suggest that some drivers who said their Toyota and Lexus vehicles surged out of control were mistakenly flooring the accelerator when they intended to jam on the brakes. But the findings don’t exonerate Toyota from two known issues blamed for sudden acceleration in its vehicles: sticky accelerator pedals and floor mats that can trap accelerator pedals to the floor.

The findings by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration involve a sample of reports in which a driver of a Toyota vehicle said the brakes were depressed but failed to stop the car from accelerating and ultimately crashing.

The data recorders analyzed by NHTSA were selected by the agency, not Toyota, based on complaints the drivers had filed with the government.

The findings are consistent with a 1989 government-sponsored study that blamed similar driver mistakes for a rash of sudden-acceleration reports involving Audi 5000 sedans.

The Toyota findings, which haven’t been released by NHTSA, support Toyota’s position that sudden-acceleration reports involving its vehicles weren’t caused by electronic glitches in computer-controlled throttle systems, as some safety advocates and plaintiffs’ attorneys have alleged. More than 100 people have sued the auto maker claiming crashes were the result of faulty electronics.

While this doesn’t totally exonerate Toyota from responsibility for a defect, it does indicate that driver error played a bigger role in this problem than the media was leading people to believe, despite the fact that there was clear evidence that it was playing a role:

Federal investigators’ first report on a runaway Toyota Prius in Westchester seems to put blame for the near-tragic accident squarely on the driver.

“Information retrieved from the vehicle’s onboard computer systems indicated there was no application of the brakes and the throttle was fully open,” the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration said in a statement today regarding the accident.

There is also evidence that the other well-known Prius acceleration case, which resulted in a high-speech chase on a California highway, may have been a hoax and that an ABC News report claiming to replicate a Camry’s “unintended” acceleration was also a hoax.

The lesson ? For one thing, perception is not necessarily reality. The fact that drivers thought their cars were accelerating through no action of that they took, doesn’t mean that they didn’t in fact, mistakenly, hit the gas instead of the brake and, most importantly, not everything the media tells you may be true.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Science & Technology, , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Brummagem Joe says:

    You mean the media was misleading people, creating hysteria, exaggerating the extent of a problem. Surely not. At times the media is criminally irresponsible in how it reports about problems. Exhibit A being the oil spill. For months they’ve been screaming about how all the beaches are being contaminated, the world is coming to an end etc etc. Then a few nights ago at the time of the July 4 holiday they were showing pictures of pristine sandy beaches in the gulf that were deserted and conducting interviews with locals bemoaning the lack of tourists. I wonder why. Basically Barbour was right.

  2. Anon says:

    Even just the statistics strongly suggest that this was a media-created issue.

  3. Bruce says:

    Anyone with half a brain and only a moderate amount of experience with mechanics knows this was Bravo Sierra from the outset. The same hysteria was raised by the media 2 decades ago when Audi’s were the “vehicle gone wild” du jour. Then – as now – the facts proved it was not mechanical errors, but DRIVER error causing the “unintended acceleration” and resulting crashes. Toss in the usual bunch of mutts looking to make a financial killing out of it (like the Prius case), and there you have it. Wonder when NBC/CBS/ABC will start blowing up cars and trucks again…

  4. grampagravy says:

    It is always the car’s fault. I hear it on the news all the time: “…the car WENT out of control and hit… .” Never “some dumba$$ drove his car into a pole.”

  5. Juneau: says:

    The conservative shows were all over this and had it nailed months ago. But the Democrat Congress used it as an excuse to humiliate the chief executives of Toyota on national television didn’t they. You’ve got to grab all the chances you can to look like you’re in control and on the job – even if you know it’s a sham. That’s become the status quo over the last 18 months or so.

  6. john personna says:

    I just dropped off my Prius for it’s normal service 1/2 hour ago. They inform me that they will “fix” the floor mats and accelerator pedal at the same time. 73K miles, no problems. (My Prius is even blue!)

    It is sad, but at some background level I can understand the government giving drivers a fig leaf. it’s “mean” to say that it was all driver error. That was especially true in the case of the Audi’s where if I remember correctly, some parents killed their children. I’m not aware of any child deaths in the Toyota complaints.

    … I guess I can hope they don’t introduce an error now, with the mats and accelerator.

  7. john personna says:

    The conservative shows were all over this and had it nailed months ago.

    Interesting. Got a link?

  8. Steve Plunk says:

    I hate to say I told you so….

  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    Obviously Toyota makes drivers stupid.

  10. john personna says:

    Michael Reynolds scolded “engineering types” and then wrote:

    Q: Will this Toyota suddenly accelerate so that I go hurtling down the freeway at 100 mph while my kids shriek in terror and we all die in a fiery crash?

    A: Maybe.

    Can you see how that might be a problem for Toyota?

    Michael Reynolds also wrote:

    I don’t argue that Toyotas have higher overall risks. The fact is more people probably die by virtue of less effective brakes on cheaper makes. But that doesn’t mean every brand has Toyota’s acceleration issues, or that Toyota doesn’t have a problem.

    Apparently Toyota makes Audi drivers stupid.

  11. john personna says:

    John Personna wrote:

    If I recall correctly, I am one of the few (second generation model) Prius drivers here. I feel pretty safe. Moreso since I saw this unfortunate age correlation at MR. I’m too young for my car to attack me:

    In the 24 cases where driver age was reported or readily inferred, the drivers included those of the ages 60, 61, 63, 66, 68, 71, 72, 72, 77, 79, 83, 85, 89—and I’m leaving out the son whose age wasn’t identified, but whose 94-year-old father died as a passenger.

    Of course, it could just be the latent aspergers’ tendency in me to look to numbers, rather than just how scary Priuses feel right now.

  12. Michael Reynolds says:


    The full quote:

    One of the things I love about this blog is that it attracts so many aspergers engineering types, with their complete ignorance of humans.

    The mathematical odds are irrelevant to this kind of decision when seen from the perspective of a human.

    Q: Will this Honda/Mercedes/Ford suddenly accelerate so that I go hurtling down the freeway at 100 mph while my kids shriek in terror and we all die in a fiery crash?

    A: No.

    Q: Will this Toyota suddenly accelerate so that I go hurtling down the freeway at 100 mph while my kids shriek in terror and we all die in a fiery crash?

    A: Maybe.

    Can you see how that might be a problem for Toyota?

    I was pretty obviously talking about people’s decision-making process and Toyota’s PR problem. Are you arguing that this story didn’t affect buying decisions? Or that it wasn’t a PR problem for Toyota? Kind of not getting the triumphal tone.

    Incidentally, my second car is a Toyota RAV4. I love it. I like driving it more than the Audi.

  13. Michael Reynolds says:


    It occurs to me that you took my first comment as a shot at you. Not at all my intention. I was just being droll, suggesting a way in which it could all still be Toyota’s fault. ie: Toyota makes drivers stupid.

  14. Drew says:

    Heh, heh, heh. My Porsche never suddenly accelerates……….nor do I expect it to. But its boffo brakes, and my excellent reflexes keep me out of trouble with the usual idiots on the road.

    But maybe I’m not saving the world. Oy.

  15. Michael Reynolds says:

    I’ve never driven a Porsche. But I know what you mean with the brakes. Benz brakes grab you with a certainty that’s amazing. You KNOW you’re stopping. You know exactly WHERE you’re stopping. The whole driving experience becomes so precise, so exquisitely calibrated. The Audi’s fine but it doesn’t have those brakes. The brakes God would have on his Godmobile. If He were cruising the 405.

  16. floyd says:

    So… Why use a simple Two dollar cable when a multigig computer, multiple sensors, and a few miles of wire will do almost as well?

  17. Brummagem Joe says:

    Michael Reynolds says:
    Tuesday, July 13, 2010 at 22:23
    “I’ve never driven a Porsche.”

    I’ve got a Cayenne. The brakes are amazing. My wife had an Audi in 1990 when the Mike Wallace Audi bs was at it’s height. There are millions of Toyotas on the road and they allegedly found the problem in a handful. Having been at the receiving end of a couple of these scares the hysteria is unbelievable once it takes hold and of course it’s fanned by the media because “If it bleeds it leads”

  18. john personna says:

    In SoCal we’ve got a problem with crowded roads and sports cars that are too fast. Back in the day I could run a car through a few gears on an open road, and maybe touch triple digits. With some of these cars today, and their 3-4 sec 0-60s, run them hard for 1 or 2 gears … and you’re being insensible.

    Actually I remember a Road and Track retrospective mentioning that they’d had a Jaguar D type up to 140 mph on Jamboree in Newport Beach. That was back when Jamboree was a country road.

    A Prius matches my mood in a number of ways now, one of which is that I wouldn’t want to drive much faster in this much traffic. I was never a “freeway slalom” guy.

    I do think about the Cayman now and then though … not the S. I think it would be a fun driver’s car. You might even be able to run it hard in 1st through 4th from time to time.

  19. john personna says:

    Come to think of it, the full Road and Track quote was that gas was 19 cents a gallon, and you could do 140 on Jamboree ….

  20. Michael Reynolds says:

    When I have to drive from Irvine to Hollywood the ideal might be a Porsche until shortly after Long Beach. From there on in you might as well be driving a golf cart.

  21. john personna says:

    Carpool stickers, all the way 😉

  22. john personna says:

    (A couple times i have literally passed Lamborghinis, stopped in the fast lane. kinda funny. I don’t fault the choice in cars … it’s a great car to drive rarely on open roads … just a poor choice for OC commuting.

    Ah well, maybe those guys just didn’t bring their Prius that day.)

  23. Don L says:

    To court, take their money and break their typewriters, find out how far up this went and who planted it – the Whitehouse after all, own Toyota’s competition.

  24. Michael Reynolds says:

    I worry about you, John, over in the HOV lane. Those concrete barriers don’t look too stable to me. The slightest impact from a car on the other side might push one of them into the HOV lane.

    This is a risk I avoid by driving at four miles an hour.

  25. john personna says:

    I mountain bike (in mountain lion country), wearing a t-shirt for protection.

    (Most people seriously mis-rank their car’s safety as a factor in their total safety picture.)