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Southlake, Texas » Toyota has for years blocked access to data stored in devices similar to airline "black boxes" that could explain crashes blamed on sudden unintended acceleration, according to an Associated Press review of lawsuits nationwide and interviews with auto crash experts.
The AP investigation found that Toyota has been inconsistent -- and sometimes even contradictory -- in revealing exactly what the devices record and don't record, including critical data about whether the brake or accelerator pedals were depressed at the time of a crash.
By contrast, most other automakers routinely allow much more open access to information from their event data recorders, commonly known as EDRs.
AP also found that Toyota:
» Has frequently refused to provide key information sought by crash victims and survivors.
» Uses proprietary software in its EDRs. Until this week, there was only a single laptop in the U.S. containing the software needed to read the data following a crash.
» In some lawsuits, when pressed to provide recorder information Toyota either settled or provided printouts with the key columns blank.
Toyota's "black box" information is emerging as a critical legal issue amid the recall of 8 million vehicles by the world's largest automaker. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said this week that 52 people have died in crashes linked to accelerator problems, triggering an avalanche of lawsuits.
When Toyota was asked by the AP to explain what exactly its recorders do collect, a company statement said Thursday that the devices record data from five seconds before until two seconds after an air bag is deployed in a crash.
The statement said information is captured about vehicle speed, the accelerator's angle, gear shift position, whether the seat belt was used and the angle of the driver's seat.
There was no initial mention of brakes -- a key point in the sudden acceleration problem. When AP went back to Toyota to ask specifically about brake information, Toyota responded that its EDRs do, in fact, record "data on the brake's position and the antilock brake system."
But that does not square with information obtained by attorneys in a deadly crash last year in Southlake, Texas, and in a 2004 accident in Indiana that killed an elderly woman.
In the Texas crash, where four people died when their 2008 Avalon ripped through a fence, hit a tree and flipped into an icy pond, an EDR readout obtained by police listed as "off" any information on acceleration or braking.
In the 2004 crash in Evansville, Ind., that killed Juanita Grossman, 77, attorneys for her family say a Toyota technician traveled from the company's U.S. headquarters in Torrance, Calif., to examine her 2003 Camry.
Before she died, the 5-foot-2, 125-pound woman told relatives she was practically standing with both feet on the brake pedal but could not stop the car from slamming into a building. Records confirm that emergency personnel found Grossman with both feet on the brake pedal.
A Toyota representative told the family's attorneys there was "no sensor that would have preserved information regarding the accelerator and brake positions at the time of impact," according to a summary of the case provided by Safety Research & Strategies Inc., a Rehoboth, Mass.-based company that does vehicle safety research for attorneys, engineers, government and others.
One attorney in the Texas case contends in court documents that Toyota may have deliberately stopped allowing its EDRs to collect critical information so the Japanese automaker would not be forced to reveal it in court cases.
"This goes directly to defendants' notice of the problem and willingness to cover up the problem," said E. Todd Tracy, who had been suing automakers for 20 years.
Toyota refused comment Thursday on Tracy's allegations because it is an ongoing legal matter, but said the company does share EDR information with government regulators.
Acceptance and distribution of data recorder technology by other automakers is commonplace.
General Motors, for example, has licensed the auto parts maker Bosch to produce a device capable of downloading EDR data directly to a laptop computer, either from the scene of an accident or later. The device is available to law enforcement agencies or any other third party, spokesman Alan Adler said.
Spokesmen from Ford and Chrysler said their recorder data is just as accessible. "We put what you would call 'open systems' in our vehicles, which are readable by law enforcement or anyone who has a need to read that data," Chrysler spokesman Mike Palese said.
Nissan also makes its EDR data readily available to third parties. However, Honda does not allow open access to its EDR data.
What is an Event Data Recorder?
Event data recorders, or EDRs, are devices located within most vehicles produced today that record information before an accident. The information and its sophistication varies, but it generally includes data on the position of the gas and brake pedals, vehicle speed, engine speed, whether an air bag deployed and whether a seat belt was buckled.
Where are EDRs located?
They can be located in a variety of places, but are often positioned under the steering wheel or in the center console in between the driver and passenger seats.
What is the difference between an EDR and an aircraft "black box"?
While both are used in crash investigations, an aircraft black box records much more extensive flight data for a much longer period of time. In addition, EDRs do not record voices.
Who has access to EDR data?
Different automakers have different standards regarding who can access EDR data.
What is EDR data used for?
EDR data has a variety of uses. Automakers use EDR readouts to research vehicle safety. Law enforcement agencies use them to piece together the cause of accidents. Attorneys use them during criminal proceedings or lawsuits to help their clients.
Does the government regulate the use of EDRs?
Automakers have been voluntarily installing EDRs in their vehicles for many years. The government currently does not require them or regulate their use.
About 731 owners of Toyota vehicles not covered by two recent recalls have reported sudden acceleration complaints to U.S. auto safety regulators in the past six weeks, a Detroit Free Press analysis found.
The growing crowd of complaints adds to evidence that Toyota still hasn't identified all possible causes of the problem. NHTSA also said Wednesday it had identified 60 complaints from Toyota owners who had vehicles fixed under recall only to have sudden unintended acceleration again.