WASHINGTON – Some Toyota owners say they're still having trouble with unintended acceleration after their recalled cars were repaired, and the Transportation Department said Wednesday it is looking into their complaints.
The complaints raise new questions about whether Toyota's remedy will solve the problem. David Strickland, the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said in a statement the agency is reaching out to consumers about the complaints "to get to the bottom of the problem and to make sure Toyota is doing everything possible to make its vehicles safe."
"If Toyota owners are still experiencing sudden acceleration incidents after taking their cars to the dealership, we want to know about it," Strickland said.
The government has received a limited number of acceleration reports from the Toyota owners whose floor mats or gas pedals have been fixed. Toyota and the government are investigating potential electrical problems as part of the Japanese automaker's recall of more than 8 million vehicles worldwide.
NHTSA has linked 52 deaths to crashes allegedly caused by Toyota's acceleration problems. The company has blamed mechanical causes or drivers pressing the wrong pedal and repaired about 1 million vehicles, but has said it is looking into electronics as a potential cause.
Toyota did not immediately comment on the new complaints.
Stewart Stogel, 49, of Mount Vernon, N.Y., said his 2009 Camry accelerated to about 15 mph on a street near his home on Saturday, five days after a dealership trimmed the gas pedal and installed new brake override software as part of the floor mat recall. The car didn't stop for several seconds even though he pressed on the brakes. Stogel said he barely avoided going down an embankment and hitting a wall.
"At first the brakes didn't engage at all," said Stogel, a freelance journalist. "Just as I approached Terrace Avenue, the wheels were able to get some traction, and all of the sudden the engine did disengage."
Stogel said the car had accelerated two previous times, and both times Stogel said he took it to dealerships to be checked. In one case it was inspected by a Toyota corporate technician who could find nothing wrong, he said.
After the latest incident, Stogel called his dealer, who told him to return with the car. He also left a message with Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. President Jim Lentz. On Tuesday, Stogel's dealer called and asked him to return with the Camry so Toyota engineers can inspect it.
Carolyn Kimbrell, 59, a retired office assistant in Whitesville, Ky., said her 2006 Toyota Avalon accelerated last weekend as she pulled up to her mailbox near her home — about a week after the car had been fixed. Kimbrell had just returned from a shopping trip to the mall with her 9-year-old granddaughter.
Kimbrell's car dealer on Feb. 20 inserted a small piece of metal into the gas pedal mechanism to eliminate friction that was causing the pedal problems. The dealer is scheduled to provide a separate fix to prevent the accelerator pedal from becoming trapped in the floor mat. But now Kimbrell said she wonders if the company's fix will solve the problem.
"It just scares you," Kimbrell said. "If I had been trying to stop at a busy intersection, that would have been bad."
The recalls have prompted three congressional hearings, hurt Toyota's safety and quality reputation and generated death and injury lawsuits. Federal prosecutors in New York are conducting a criminal investigation into the recalls and the Securities and Exchange Commission is probing what the automaker told investors.
Toyota on Tuesday said its U.S. sales fell 9 percent in February but it would offer repeat buyers two years of free maintenance to help rebuild customer loyalty.
During congressional hearings, Toyota executives said all new models sold in the United States will have the override system by 2011 and many recalled vehicles will be retrofitted with the brake override as a precaution. Toyota said it has fixed about 1 million recalled vehicles.