Toyota’s Deadly $2.3 Billion Mistake

On August 28, 2009, a loose floor mat and faulty brakes caused Mark Saylor's Lexus to crash, killing his family. This led to a major Toyota recall.

Toyota’s Deadly $2.3 Billion Mistake

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Preview of accident

On August 28, 2009, a man urgently phoned 911 as he was traveling on a highway in San Diego at a speed of 120 miles per hour, reporting that the accelerator pedal in his car was stuck and he couldn’t get the car to stop. He stated that his brakes weren’t working. 

The car was a Lexus dealer-provided loaner ES 350, and inside were Mark Saylor, aged 45, who was driving alongside his wife Cleofe, also 45, their 13-year-old daughter Mahala, and Mr. Saylor’s brother-in-law, Chris Lastrella, who was the one that actually called 911. Tragically, the car crashed into another vehicle and then plunged into a ravine, resulting in the instant death of everyone inside.

The 911 call recording was released by the California Highway Patrol in September 2009 following the August 28 crash. The call recording went viral, and everybody blamed Toyota. The recording worsened Toyota's reputation, and other reports about similar issues began to emerge across Toyota's product line. As a result, they recalled 4.5 million cars within a few months and more than 10 million cars worldwide in two years due to accelerator issues which caused many deaths and injuries worldwide and the company still had to face numerous lawsuits.  In addition to Lexus vehicles, they also received over 100 complaints about brake problems in their Prius hybrid cars. 

The lawyer acting for Mr Saylor, later discovered that the Lexus had been rented to another customer three days previously, but had been returned with a complaint that the accelerator was sticking. Over the next five years, an estimated 90 people died in Toyotas which mysteriously accelerated. Numerous complaints and accidents involving Toyota vehicles were filed. In 2014, the company paid 1.2 billion dollars to avoid prosecution for covering up information about problems with unintended acceleration that the FBI said Toyota knew was deadly.

The call recording

First, let the focus remain on the tragic 911 call recording of Mr. Saylor's family.

911 Call Of Familys Fatal Toyota Lexus Crash

What was the underlying issue, and why did the car fail to stop? Was it truly Toyota's fault? Well, At that time, a theory emerged to explain the behavior of the pedals, suggesting that it was caused by floor mats sliding around and pressing down on the pedals, and for valid reasons, shortly after the Mark Saylor incident, it was found that the same loaner car he was driving had a reported issue of a loose floor mat causing unintended acceleration. Toyota then initiated a large-scale recall of Lexus vehicles, seemingly addressing the problem. However, it became evident that floor mats were only a small part of the issue.

Accident investigation

The sheriff’s report in San Diego indicated that the floor mat played a role, but it couldn't rule out the possibility of an electronic malfunction. Toyota consistently denied evidence supporting electronic issues, though they initially retracted their statement when recalling vehicles for floor mat issues. This resulted in Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood advising Toyota owners to stop driving their vehicles and take them to a Toyota dealer, as a solution was believed to be available.

However, according to Malcolm Gladwell, a well-known journalist, any explanation was questionable as numerous tests have demonstrated that even when a driver presses the throttle to the maximum, applying the brakes can bring the car to a stop. So if brakes will always beat an engine, why couldn't Mark Saylor stop his car that day? Who was the real culprit? Was it human error?  Did Mark Saylor fail to press the brake altogether? Because, Now that seems to be the only explanation that makes sense.

For reference, When you drive your personal car, you become used to its pedals through muscle memory. Your mind goes into autopilot mode. However, many of the mysterious acceleration incidents occurred when drivers were in unfamiliar vehicles, such as Mark Saylor driving a loaner car. People often fail to adjust properly when getting into an unfamiliar vehicle. As a result, when they intend to press the brake, they may unintentionally press the gas pedal instead. Research supports this phenomenon. 

In 2011, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, along with NASA, released a report on these mysterious acceleration incidents. They analyzed the black boxes in these cars, which store information before, during, and after an accident. What they found in most cases was that the brake pedal had not been touched. These drivers were unintentionally pressing the gas pedal the entire time. This is known as pedal error, and it's more common than you might think. 

So, now we have the understanding of what happened to Mark Saylor, right? Well, not exactly because here comes the new twist to it. A few months after the Saylor incident, new details emerged suggesting that he was indeed pressing the brakes, and that something else was at play. It turns out that Malcolm Gladwell overlooked a crucial aspect of this puzzle and that was none other than Power-Assisted Brakes.

These brakes are designed to draw power from the engine, but they have a fatal flaw in a specific scenario. Consumer Reports conducted a test similar to Gladwell's with a Toyota car equipped with power-assisted brakes. They kept the accelerator floored and pressed the brakes, and the car eventually slowed down. However, they didn't stop there.

They repeated the test, but this time, they changed one thing: they lifted their foot from the brake while the accelerator was still pressed. And that caused the brakes not to function. Even if you press the brakes again, you will eventually lose power assistance, and you cannot slow down the vehicle.

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Therefore, Mark Saylor wasn't the victim of pedal error; he was the victim of a loose floor mat and power-assisted brakes combined together. In real-world scenarios, people may lift their foot off the brake, perhaps to pump the brakes for more power or to adjust a floor mat. However, the crucial point is that when you lift your foot off the brake, even once, you lose power assistance, making it nearly impossible to stop the vehicle having power-assisted brakes.