National Research Council Report Recommends Actions to Improve Car Safety

Automobile Accidents | vehicle safety

February 8, 2012

A recent report released by the National Research Council’s Transportation Research Board concluded the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) acted appropriately in discontinuing its investigation of unintended acceleration claims with Toyota vehicles. The report was prepared in response to a number of consumer complaints claiming that Toyota and Lexus vehicles suddenly accelerated without driver input.  In some cases, vehicles allegedly spontaneously accelerated when the driver claimed they were pressing the brake pedal.

Despite previous claims and prior recalls, this issue hit the national stage after a fatal accident in August, 2009, involving an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer driving his family in Lexus ES. Floor-mat entrapment was later determined to be the cause, involving a non-original, all-weather mat.

Several large-scale recalls were issued in the wake of this tragedy to examine potential causes for the unintended acceleration events.  Factors considered included floor mat replacement, floor mat anchors, modifications to gas-pedals to reduce the risk of  mat entrapment risk, and software updates enabling smart-throttle brake override to prevent unintended acceleration in certain late-model vehicles.

The NHTSA determined mat entrapment, misapplication of the gas pedal, and sticking pedals were the cause of these incidents, and not malfunction of the electronic throttle system.  These findings were corroborated by a separate investigation by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The report recommends an advisory committee to the NHTSA be formed to keep the government up to date on current and developing technologies so that the agency can be more proactive in dealing with technology-related safety issues.  The report also calls for a review of Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) with the goal of improving the ability to identify and deal with  problems related to increasingly complex electronic systems which may leave no physical trace of defect or malfunction.

Another recommendation was to have event data records, a vital aid to investigators, installed on all new vehicles. The Research Council also endorsed further research by the NHTSA regarding pedal layout and keyless ignition designs, and emphasized the importance of human factors in electronic system design.