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Unintended Acceleration Not Limited To Toyotas

The dangerous problem of cars accelerating without a driver's input has put Toyota in the headlines — and brought the giant carmaker's executives to congressional hearings. But unintended acceleration has been a problem across the auto industry, according to an NPR analysis of consumer complaints to federal regulators.

A Southern California Toyota dealership on January 26, 2010. Japanese auto-makers have shut down plants in Japan following the recent earthquake and tsunami. It's not yet clear what the impact on local dealers will be.
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Above: A Southern California Toyota dealership on January 26, 2010. Japanese auto-makers have shut down plants in Japan following the recent earthquake and tsunami. It's not yet clear what the impact on local dealers will be.

The NPR News Investigation finds that other auto makers have had high rates of complaints in some model years, including Volkswagen, Volvo, Honda and others — in some cases resolving the apparent problems through evolving technology and recalls.

The analysis covers about 15,000 complaints filed over the past decade, covering cars back to the 1990 model year. The complaints were filed with the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, which regulates auto safety.

As NPR's Robert Benincasa tells Michele Norris, comparing complaints to manufacturers' market share can reveal potential problems with particular makes of cars.

"Toyota's problems seemed go back to 2002," Benincasa said. "That's a few years before these recalls we've been hearing about with the floor mats and the sticky gas pedals. So back in 2002, they had about ten percent of the U.S. auto market and they had about 19 percent of the complaints on acceleration."

While unintended acceleration is still generally rare, it has touched automakers throughout the industry.

As an example, Benincasa points to a high rate of complaints about acceleration in cars made by Volkswagen in 2008, "despite the fact that the company says it's been using a system where the brake overrides the accelerator since the 2002 model year."

"Hondas in the 2001-2003 model years had a relatively high rate of complaints," Benincasa said. "Then in 2004, the complaints dropped significantly and have remained low — and that company doesn't use a brake override approach."

As Toyota's problems have unfolded very publicly, amid tragic stories of runaway cars, the NHTSA has also come in for criticism.

In Congress, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently defended the agency's response to safety problems, saying it is continuous and aggressive. Representatives of the NHTSA — which is part of the transportation department — declined to appear on "All Things Considered" to discuss NPR's analysis of the complaint data.

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the watchdog group Center for Auto Safety, says regulators are not doing the kind of analysis that compares various manufacturers' complaint levels to their sales figures.

"There's no one doing it as far as I know. This is the first time I've seen an analysis like this in a long time," Ditlow said after reviewing some results of the NPR investigation.

"Not since the 1980s, when sudden acceleration first hit the headlines, did we see a manufacturer-based analysis of complaints," Ditlow said. "But it's something the government could and should be doing every year."

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