Complaints on Toyota went for naught
Mass. case casts light on US investigations
As he drove home to Braintree from Florida in 2003, Peter Boddaert’s black Lexus LS400 suddenly raced forward and rear-ended a van as he was switching lanes in Virginia. It was the third time his car had accelerated without warning, long before major safety concerns with Toyota-made cars had surfaced.
“I pressed like hell on the brake, but was unable to completely stop the car,’’ Boddaert wrote in a letter to his insurance agency.
He took the luxury sedan to his dealer, and, again, no problem could be found. Frustrated and scared, Boddaert got rid of the car; but at the urging of his family, he filed a petition with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to request it investigate such incidents with the Lexus, made by Toyota Motor Corp.
The Boddaert case triggered the first of eight federal investigations, from 2003 to 2009, into claims of unintended acceleration involving cars or trucks made by Toyota. Federal officials rejected Boddaert’s claims, partly based on a 1989 study that blamed driver error for most incidents of unwanted acceleration. Boddaert died in April at age 88.
The government’s handling of Boddaert’s case sheds light on how investigators may have underestimated a serious problem, repeatedly dismissing claims from drivers worried that something was wrong with their vehicles, even in the face of numerous acceleration complaints.
Toyota recently recalled some 8.5 million vehicles to address issues related to unintended acceleration, offering fixes to floor mats and gas pedals. But Boddaert’s car, the 1999 Lexus LS400, was not on the list, raising the question of whether Toyota has adequately addressed concerns about unintended acceleration.
Over the past decade, at least 2,262 Toyota and Lexus drivers nationwide - including about 80 in Massachusetts - have reported that their cars have sped up on their own, according to Safety Research & Strategies Inc. in Rehoboth. Roughly half of those complaints involved Toyota models that have not been recalled.
“I’d wager an awful lot of money that we’re going to see a lot of recalls on sudden unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles over the next few years,’’ said Safety Research founder Sean Kane, who testified during congressional hearings on Toyota this week. Safety Research, which supplies research on safety matters to attorneys and plaintiffs in civil lawsuits, compiled the acceleration data using consumer complaints, media accounts, court documents, and other sources.
Kane told the Globe that he believes the total number of recalled Toyota vehicles could climb to 15 million, based on cases of unintended acceleration.
Officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration declined several requests for interviews about its handling of the Boddaert case; Toyota also did not respond to requests for comment. But a December deposition of a Toyota employee suggested the carmaker and federal officials worked together to limit the investigation of sudden acceleration problems.
“We discussed the scope,’’ said Christopher Santucci, adding that Toyota and the agency agreed to focus on a narrow definition of unintended acceleration for the investigation.
“I think it worked out well for both the agency and Toyota,’’ he said.
“He took the Camry for an oil change and came back with a Lexus,’’ recalled son Jack Boddaert. “My dad would probably tell you it was the most comfortable car he’d ever driven.’’
The Globe examined Peter Boddaert’s case based on federal documents, accident reports, and interviews with his family.
Boddaert was trying to back out of the driveway at his winter home in Florida when he experienced his first incident of unintended acceleration. The sedan “shot backwards,’’ his son recalled. Boddaert took the car to his Florida dealer, and, later, to Lexus of Norwood, but neither could find anything wrong. A spokesman for Herb Chambers Group, which owns the Norwood dealership, said mechanics tested the car’s systems and drove it both on city roads and the highway, but couldn’t duplicate the problem.
“My feet were pushing desperately on the brake,’’ Boddaert wrote a few days after the incident, in a letter to Lexus. “I am sure you will agree that there is something seriously wrong that Lexus needs to be made aware of and cure. Even the most basic vehicle should not suffer from a problem of this dangerous nature.’’
Later, while Boddaert was driving on the highway, the car again sped up suddenly, slowing only when he shifted into neutral, Jack Boddaert said. After the third incident - the one that resulted in the fender-bender in Virginia - Boddaert petitioned the NHTSA for an investigation. He also gave up the car.
At the time, Jack Boddaert said, the family feared that someone could be injured or killed if authorities did not take the problem seriously. His father was 83 at the time, and “it would have been very difficult to convince people that there was a problem with the car, and not with him.’’
That fear prompted the family to insist that Toyota send an engineer to inspect the vehicle. It was a lesson in frustration.
“They were very, very difficult to deal with,’’ Jack Boddaert said. “I made calls, and my mother made calls. It started off as, ‘Well, we’ve never heard of that problem’ to ‘Well, we’ve had it checked. There’s nothing wrong with the car.’ ’’
On Tuesday, during congressional hearings about Toyota’s recent problems, Representative Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat, questioned US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood about the Boddaert case.
Markey noted that federal investigators were not informed by Toyota that in 2000, three years before Boddaert’s petition, Toyota recalled a Lexus model in the United Kingdom for a floor mat problem “identical’’ to the one behind recent recalls in the United States.
“Do you think the department might have reached a different conclusion had it known about the 2000 Lexus UK recall involving the floor mats entrapping accelerator pedals?’’ Markey asked.
LaHood replied, “I would assume that we would have, but that’s a guess.’’
Investigators considered cases of unintended acceleration in several other car brands, and referred to their own 1989 study on unintended acceleration, conducted by the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge.
E. Donald Sussman, a coauthor of the 1989 study, recalled that at the time it was conducted, federal officials posed one overarching question: “Was it real?’’
Sussman’s team at the Volpe Center tested 10 mid-1980s cars with the highest number of acceleration reports, including two model years of the Audi 5000 sedan, a Chevrolet Camaro, and a Toyota Cressida. They concluded that design flaws caused drivers to hit the wrong pedal, or step on both the gas and the brake at the same time.
Two months after opening the Boddaert investigation, federal officials dismissed the case, writing that a comparison of sudden acceleration complaints in other luxury car brands found “no evidence that Lexus vehicles are experiencing speed control-related problems more frequently than their peers.’’ The agency also cited the 1989 sudden acceleration study, which said, “The inescapable conclusion is that these definitely involve the driver inadvertently pressing the accelerator instead of, or in addition to, the brake pedal.’’
Sussman, who worked at the Volpe Center for 34 years, said his study was “well received’’ at the time, but “the Toyota problem [now] is different.’’
Steven Spear, a senior lecturer at MIT who has written about Toyota, said electronics “might play a big role in this thing.’’ Spear and other industry insiders said cars now have electronic controls that are much more sophisticated than in the 1980s, and those systems could be a source of the problem, a claim Toyota has repeatedly denied.
“I wonder whether their funding and staff expertise are in line with our expectations,’’ Jack Boddaert wrote in a follow-up e-mail to the Globe, “especially now, when the car has become such an electronic maze.’’
After the case was dismissed, Jack Boddaert tried to persuade his father to get a lawyer and sue, but the elder Boddaert was tired of the stress and wanted to leave the incidents behind him.
Now, Jack Boddaert is ready to pick up where his father left off, saying he would be “happy’’ to take on Toyota again, and may join a class-action suit, as other Toyota owners have done.
“I would say to Toyota, if you had taken this thing seriously five or six years ago and really done something about it,’’ he said, “you would have avoided the huge catastrophe you have now.’’
Erin Ailworth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.