The dangerous problem of cars accelerating without a driver's input has put Toyota in the headlines — and brought the giant carmaker's executives to congressional hearings. But unintended acceleration has been a problem across the auto industry, according to an NPR analysis of consumer complaints to federal regulators.
The NPR News investigation finds that other automakers have had high rates of complaints in some model years, including Volkswagen, Volvo and Honda — in some cases resolving the apparent problems through evolving technology and recalls.
The analysis covers about 15,000 complaints filed over the past decade, covering cars back to the 1990 model year. The complaints were filed with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, which regulates auto safety.
As NPR's Robert Benincasa tells Michele Norris, comparing complaints with manufacturers' market share can reveal potential problems with particular makes of cars.
"Toyota's problems seemed go back to 2002," Benincasa said. "That's a few years before these recalls we've been hearing about with the floor mats and the sticky gas pedals. So back in 2002, they had about 10 percent of the U.S. auto market and they had about 19 percent of the complaints on acceleration."
While unintended acceleration is still generally rare, it has touched automakers throughout the industry.
As an example, Benincasa points to a high rate of complaints about acceleration in cars made by Volkswagen in 2008, "despite the fact that the company says it's been using a system where the brake overrides the accelerator since the 2002 model year."
"Hondas in the 2001-2003 model years had a relatively high rate of complaints," Benincasa said. "Then in 2004, the complaints dropped significantly and have remained low — and that company doesn't use a brake override approach."
As Toyota's problems have unfolded very publicly, amid tragic stories of runaway cars, NHTSA has also come in for criticism.
In Congress, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently defended the agency's response to safety problems, saying it is continuous and aggressive. Representatives of NHTSA — which is part of the Department of Transportation — declined to appear on All Things Considered to discuss NPR's analysis of the complaint data.
Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the watchdog group Center for Auto Safety, says regulators are not doing the kind of analysis that compares various manufacturers' complaint levels with their sales figures.
"There's no one doing it as far as I know. This is the first time I've seen an analysis like this in a long time," Ditlow said after reviewing some results of the NPR investigation.
"Not since the 1980s, when sudden acceleration first hit the headlines, did we see a manufacturer-based analysis of complaints," Ditlow said. "But it's something the government could and should be doing every year."
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MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
And we begin this hour in the driver's seat with the latest on Toyota's recent safety troubles. You won't hear this news anywhere else. It comes from NPR's investigative team. Our own Robert Benincasa, who helps us find the stories in statistics, has been looking into acceleration problems, but not just at Toyota. He's crunched the numbers for all of the automakers over the last two decades, and you might be surprised by what he found. We certainly were.
And Robert joins me now. Robert, first the basics. What were you looking at, and what did you find?
ROBERT BENINCASA: Well, we got a database of 15,000 complaints from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, that's the federal agency that regulates auto safety. And going back about 10 years when these complaints started proliferating, they go out throughout the auto industry. It's not just a Toyota problem.
NORRIS: Where else did you see this? What other automakers were involved?
BENINCASA: Well, it touched a lot of different automakers. Some good examples, in the 2008 model year, Volkswagens had a high rate of complaint. Hondas in the early part of the decade had a relatively high rate of complaints. And then in 2004, they seemed to have fixed something and the complaints dropped.
NORRIS: So it seems to be a question of not just how, you know, how these problems surfaced, but how the companies handled these problems. We've seen in the past few weeks how Toyota is handling this. How have other companies handled this comparatively?
BENINCASA: In some cases they have a recall. And in other cases their technology gets better. One interesting case is Volvo, where in the early part of the decade, they had a significant rate of complaints. They had a recall and they fixed some of their electronics and some of the other issues. And then in the past several years they've had a very low rate of acceleration complaints.
NORRIS: So if you're looking at Toyota in comparison to these other companies, could someone make the argument that Toyota responded too slowly to these complaints?
BENINCASA: Well, that's the kind of thing that the federal regulators are investigating. The complaint patterns aren't going to really tell us the whole story on that. The regulators, they're going to have to get under the hood of Toyota and find out, you know, what they knew and when and that sort of thing.
NORRIS: Since you mentioned the complaint patterns, tell us a little bit more about what you found looking at Toyota specifically in this database that you were studying.
BENINCASA: Well, Toyota's problems seem to go back to 2002. The complaints started to get high back then, and that's a few years before this recall that we've been hearing about with the floor mats and the sticky gas pedals. So, back in 2002, they had about 10 percent of the U.S. auto market and they had about 19 percent of the complaints on acceleration.
NORRIS: I understand that you showed your analysis to Clarence Ditlow at the Center for Auto Safety, that's a consumer watchdog organization. What did he tell you about all this?
BENINCASA: Well, he said that when an automaker's complaints are well above their market share, regulators should start asking some questions.
Mr. CLARENCE DITLOW (Center for Auto Safety): Is there some problem with electronics? Is there some problem with the pedal configurations that's causing driver error?
BENINCASA: Is anyone doing that?
Mr. DITLOW: There's no one doing it as far as I know. And this the first time I've seen an analysis like this in a long time. And not since the 1980s, when sudden acceleration first hit the headlines, did we see a manufacture-based analysis of complaints. But it's something the government could and should be doing every year.
NORRIS: So, Clarence Ditlow with the Center for Auto Safety seems to be saying that the government regulators have not been as aggressive as they should be.
BENINCASA: Well, you know, Michele, as Toyota's problems have unfolded very publicly, and we've heard these horrible stories about runaway cars, the regulators have taken some heat from people like Ditlow and members of Congress of course. Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood has defended the agency. He's saying that their monitoring of safety problems is continuous and pretty aggressive. We invited someone from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to be here with us today and they declined.
NORRIS: Could you help put this in perspective? You're saying that the problem is not limited to Toyota, that it surfaced with other automakers. How common is it statistically?
BENINCASA: I don't think you could describe unintended acceleration as a common problem. It does go throughout the industry. Mr. Ditlow told us that the rule of thumb that he suggested to us was that we look at how many complaints there are versus how many vehicles were sold. And when you get above more than 10 complaints per 100,000 vehicles, then you have to start looking at, well, is there an issue here?
NORRIS: And where - is it above that level, 10 complaints per...
BENINCASA: It has been - for some automakers in some years, it has been above that level, yes.
NORRIS: Now, Robert, I understand that you've put the results of your analysis up on our Web site. Can you tell us little bit more about that?
BENINCASA: Yeah, they can visit our site, npr.org and chose their car's model year and then they can get a listing of how many complaints were associated with that automaker for that year and compare to how many cars they sold and they can even drill down and look at the numbers of complaints for each model.
NORRIS: Fantastic work, Robert.
BENINCASA: Thank you, Michele.
NORRIS: Robert Benincasa is part of the NPR investigative team. Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.