Toyota involved in fatal crash may help solve acceleration mystery

Toyota crash
This June 10, 2006 photo shows a 1996 Camry driven by Koua Fong Lee that crashed into the back of an Oldsmobile Ciera in St. Paul, Minn. Lee said he could not stop the car. The Camry is older than those including in the recalls by Toyota for unintended acceleration problems. The crash killed three people and injured two others, all in the Oldsmobile.
AP Photo/St. Paul Pioneer Press, Thomas Whisenand

The Toyota Camry belonging to St. Paul man Koua Fong Lee could help solve the mystery of why so many Toyotas are in crashes involving sudden acceleration. Three people were killed in the crash of Lee's car four years ago.

His case has been resolved, but the question of what is behind the crashes of so many Toyota vehicles is far from settled.

Lee's case is perhaps the most vivid example of how difficult it is to single out one cause for sudden acceleration.

Lee's 1996 Camry wasn't covered by the recalls of some nine million Toyotas for acceleration problems caused by floor mats that caught on gas pedals, and pedals that stuck on their own.

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Although Lee's attorneys didn't identify what caused Lee's car to speed out of control four years ago, they did present a parade of witnesses who testified to similar experiences with their late-model Toyotas.

That testimony, along with doubts about Lee's original defense and questions raised by Toyota's current problems, were enough to convince a judge he deserved a new trial, and for prosecutors to drop the charges.

"The case shows what can happpen when you take the message that it must be driver error, because you can't find anything else, to an extreme. And that type of proof should never be used in a criminal case," said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer watchdog group.

Koua Fong Lee
Koua Fong Lee embraces his wife, Panghoua Moua, outside of the Ramsey County jail, moments after learning that Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner would not seek a new case against Lee. Lee had spent more than three years in jail after he was convicted of criminal vehicular homicide after a 2006 crash, in which he hit three other cars stopped at a red light.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Ditlow has been following the Koua Fong Lee case. He says he's convinced that Toyota's electronics systems are to blame, not drivers -- even in older models like Lee's, which were not subject to the recalls.

"There are far too many of these cases where there is not even a floor mat in the vehicle, that witnesses show that the individual is stepping on the brakes, yet the car continues to accelerate," Ditlow said. "So when you look at it from that viewpoint, it has to be something in the electronics."

Toyota declined to comment on Lee's Camry specifically, because the car is evidence in pending lawsuits. But in a statement, Toyota said it is confident that its electronic throttle control system is not a cause of sudden acceleration.

So far, the government has received about 3,000 complaints about sudden acceleration, and estimates the problem could be involved in the deaths of 93 people over the last decade.

The big question in these and other cases is which accidents were caused by the drivers, and which were caused by the cars themselves?

In July, Toyota acknowledged for the first time that an internal review found sudden acceleration complaints to be valid.

Now, a number of federal agencies and congressional committees are investigating sudden acceleration, Toyota's recalls and the government's own response. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has also enlisted the help of the National Academy of Sciences and NASA.

NHTSA recently released findings from a study of data from the black boxes of 58 vehicles where sudden acceleration was reported. The agency concluded that in 35 of the 58 cases it examined, the black boxes showed no brakes were applied.

In about half of those 35 cases, the accelerator pedal was pressed right before the crash, suggesting that drivers may have stepped on the gas instead of the brakes. Fourteen cases showed partial braking. One case showed pedal entrapment, and another showed that both the brake and the pedal were depressed. Other cases were inconclusive.

But Clarence Ditlow has doubts about the credibility of both the agency's tests and the reliability of the crash data itself.

"We have cases where the black box says the vehicle hit a tree at 177 miles an hour, when the vehicle's top speed is no more than 120 miles an hour, so obviously the black box is wrong," he said.

NHTSA officials say they are confident the crash data used in the study is reliable. In a statement, the agency said that in each of the 58 cases it reviewed, the black boxes were found to be accurate.

So, why is it so hard to find agreement on a cause for sudden acceleration, even when crash data is available?

Some auto experts say it's because electronics don't leave the kind of evidence that mechanical problems can -- electronics have removed the mechanical link between a car's accelerator and motor.

Today's cars depend on multiple lines of software code, signals, sensors and other things to communicate a driver's actions and control the car.

Rajesh Rajamani, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Minnesota, says all that code can make it difficult to diagnose, recreate and repair electronic malfunctions.

"As the number of systems on a car increases, the potential for software and electronic hardware failures just increases so much," he said.

Rajamani says more stringent standards for recording vehicle data are needed as electronics systems grow more complex.

Critics of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration say the agency's existing safety standards for electronics are dangerously outdated, and the agency is too underfunded to adequately regulate the auto industry.

More regulation over the auto industry may be on the horizon. Congress is weighing a bill, The Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 2010, that would increase NHTSA's funding, and require it to make more data public.

The legislation would also give the safety agency the ability to impose higher fines on automakers, and give it more power to declare vehicle defects "imminent public safety hazards," which could speed investigations into dangerous problems.

In the meantime, Koua Fong Lee is a free man. His attorneys say he's considering filing a lawsuit against Toyota. Family members of Lee's victims have already filed their own suits against Toyota.

The Lee car has been in police custody since the accident, but attorneys are working on an agreement that would govern access to the car as the lawsuits move through the courts.

Soon, experts are expected to pore over the car, looking for anything that could shed light on the crash that took the lives of three members of the same Minnesota family -- and may help unravel the mystery of what caused an untold number of other sudden acceleration cases.