Report says dealer may have known about acceleration problem - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Report says dealer may have known about problem in car in fatal crash

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SAN DIEGO (CBS 8/CNS) - Traffic investigators in San Diego County have concluded their investigation into the runaway Lexus that killed a California Highway Patrol officer and his family in Santee, and revealed that a man who had driven the same car had reported an identical problem.

More than 4 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles nationwide have been recalled because floor mats can get stuck and jam accelerators wide open, creating a runaway vehicle with insufficient braking to overcome the thrust, said the firm, whose U.S. branch is based in Torrance.

According to a San Diego County sheriff's investigation, Frank Bernard, 61, told a receptionist at Bob Baker Lexus El Cajon that he had driven the ill-fated Lexus ES 350, which was part of a poll of loaner vehicles kept by the dealership. Bernard told investigators that he told the dealership's receptionist the sedan's throttle had "stuck in wide open position," the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

The receptionist did not seem to understand the gravity of the situation, Bernard told investigators, even after he told her "you need to tell somebody."

Bernard told investigators that he thought the floor mat caused it, according to the newspaper.

When investigators interviewed receptionist Jessica Martin-Dunleavy, she said that she did not remember Bernard or any specific complaints, the report said. But in a second interview with investigators, the 20 year-old said she did recall an older couple returning a car and the man complaining about the mat and that it made the car "go full- throttle."

Martin-Dunleavy said she reported the complaint to the detail specialist on duty that day, but that employee told investigators that no one told him there was a problem with the car, the newspaper said.

An attorney for the dealership declined to comment on the report and said he had not read it yet, according to the Union-Tribune. Jim Marinos told the newspaper that the earliest he would have a comment is Monday.

In early November, Toyota mailed letters to owners of specified Toyota and Lexus models regarding the potential for an unsecured or incompatible driver's floor mat to interfere with the accelerator pedal and cause it to become stuck.

The letter was sent in compliance with the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and mailed in the wake of the Santee crash that killed an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer and three family members. The corporation repeated that no defect exists in vehicles where the driver's floor mat is compatible with the vehicle and properly secured, but those vehicles are being recalled nonetheless so the accelerator pedal can be reduced in size.

CHP Officer Mark Saylor, 45; his wife, Cleofe, 45; his daughter, Mahala, 13; and his brother-in-law, Chris Lastrella, 38, were all killed in the Aug. 28 crash in Santee. Police said someone in the 2009 Lexus ES 350 called 911 just after 6:30 p.m. to report that the car's accelerator was stuck.

Witnesses say the Lexus was going about 100 mph on northbound state Route 125 through La Mesa when it slammed into the rear of a Ford Explorer, plowed over a curb and went through a fence before hitting an embankment and going airborne.

The Lexus reportedly rolled several times before bursting into flames in the San Diego River bed at Mission Gorge Road in Santee.

Toyota issued a statement that the San Diego investigation's finding is consistent with a recent decision by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration denying a request for additional investigation of unwanted and unintended acceleration of the 2007 Lexus ES350 and 2002 2003 Lexus ES300.

The Los Angeles Times has reported that NHTSA has failed to follow up reports of runaway Lexus and Toyota vehicles that were not caused by floormats, but were believed to have been caused by flaws in the electronic system that translates foot movements into commands to the vehicle's engine controls. 

As part of the recall, Toyota is also reprogramming vehicle computers so that engines will throttle back when brake pedals are pushed, The Times reported.

In the sheriff's report, Bernard told investigators that he had the car on Aug. 24 and 25, just before the fatal Santee wreck, the newspaper said. On the second day, Bernard said that while merging onto Interstate 15 from the Poway Road on-ramp, he took his foot off the gas, but the car kept accelerating to 85 mph.

Bernard pressed the brakes and was able to pull over and slow down. The 61-year-old said he put the car into neutral, but the engine continued to race at full speed, the newspaper said.

Bernard said he tried several times to turn off the engine but was unable to follow the only procedure on the keyless car, which is to depress the "start" button for three seconds. When he realized that the floor mat had jammed the gas pedal, he dislodged it.

Toyota said the San Diego findings show that the jammed floor mat was the problem, not the computerized "'drive by wire" accelerator controls. The Times has reported that some drivers of runaway Toyota or Lexus vehicles have been adamant that their vehicles have roared out of control independently of any floor mat issues.

Toyota says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's extensive technical review of the issue shows "the only defect trend related to vehicle speed control in the subject vehicles involved the potential for accelerator pedals to become trapped near the floor by out-of-position or inappropriate floor mat installations," according to the San Diego newspaper.

Toyota said that until it repairs its cars and trucks, owners of affected Toyota and Lexus models should take out all removable driver's floor mats and not replace them with any other floor mat.

Toyota, which makes Lexus cars, recalled the "all-weather" floor mats in its 2008 version of that model because of complaints about them sliding forward and jamming the accelerator.

The Times reported today that the NHTSA has opened a new probe into reports that Toyota Corolla and Matrix sedans sometimes stall while driven at freeway speeds.

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