REHOBOTH, Mass. (WPRI) - A federal government official is coming forward, claiming his Toyota Prius suddenly accelerated out of control.
In sworn testimony, he claims the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) knew of the problem with his car, but blamed the sudden acceleration on the age of the vehicle, which had more than 200,000 miles on it, and dropped the case.
This explanation did not sit well with Joe McClelland, the Director of the Office of Electric Reliability under the Obama Administration. He agreed to tell his story under oath to the president of a motor vehicle safety company out of Rehoboth, Mass., along with an attorney and a court reporter for a county in Pennsylvania. Eyewitness News obtained his sworn testimony.
Safety Research and Strategies has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Transportation. The lawsuit claims the agency "improperly" withheld records pertaining to McClelland's case.
Here's what happened, according to McClelland's testimony.
On May 17, 2011, two NHTSA agents arrived at McClelland's home to test his Toyota Prius. The two agents pointed out that prior incidents with sudden acceleration in Toyota's had been traced to "incorrect floor mats, a stuck accelerator pedal or operator error."
The NHTSA agents, along with McClelland, took the Prius out for a drive to see if the vehicle would demonstrate the same behavior it had for McClelland a few weeks earlier.
According to McClelland, one of the NHTSA agents recorded the test drive with his smart phone. As McClelland drove his Prius, the vehicle "accelerated as before and, again, it took off...it started to accelerate and speed."
The NHTSA agents asked if the floor mat was in place or if the accelerator was stuck and McClelland said "check for yourself."
According to McClelland, the agent saw that the floor mat was in place and the accelerator was all the way up to a position where it wasn't depressed and he confirmed: "you're right, this vehicle is doing it on its own." The sudden acceleration of McClelland's Prius happened three more times after that with both NHTSA agents experiencing it first hand and recording the entire incident on a smart phone.
According to McClelland, the two NHTSA agents "generally seemed excited. They said that they hadn't seen a vehicle display this type of behavior before, capturing the information in real-time, and they said this could be an important vehicle for the sudden accelerations and it might help put some of the pieces together." McClelland said they mentioned to him that the NHTSA may want to buy his car for further investigation.
With the car safely in McClelland's garage, the NHTSA agents hooked up the car to a computer to "pull the codes from the diagnostic port on the vehicle," but there were no codes to read. They "couldn't get them off the vehicle."
After reconfiguring the laptop, the agents asked McClelland to start his vehicle.
"They plugged in the PC and they said, bingo, it's working, and they were extracting voluminous amounts of information from the vehicle."
The agents asked McClelland not to drive the vehicle, and said someone from the NHTSA would be in touch about possibly buying his Prius for further investigation. But McClelland claims it wasn't until August, three months later, that a NHTSA employee contacted him and said the agency made its decision and decided they were not going to purchase his vehicle.
They "determined that the vehicle was an end-of-life issue."
According to McClelland, the agency said the car had so many miles on it and it was so worn that it wasn't pertinent to their interest in the sudden acceleration cases with Toyota.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, Safety Research and Strategies requested investigative information material related to the unintended acceleration incident involving McClelland's Prius. The company requested, among other things, video files McClelland says were recorded on the NHTSA agent's smart phone.
However, the NHTSA only handed over six documents, determining that the other material related to "trade secrets or confidential financial or commercial information."
Sean Kane, President of Safety Research and Strategies, has now filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Transportation seeking the disclosure of the NHTSA's records.
Eyewitness News contacted the NHTSA for a comment regarding the lawsuit and the McClelland case.
According to a spokesperson, they did not find any evidence linking the car to known causes of unintended acceleration cases. NHTSA concluded that the speed of the car could easily be controlled by the brakes. NHTSA maintains that its investigation into Toyota's sudden unintended acceleration was closed in February of 2010 and the only causes remain sticky pedals and pedal entrapment.
Eyewitness News contacted Toyota for a comment regarding the lawsuit, though they have not returned our calls.
The government closed its investigation in February 2010 into reports of sudden acceleration in
certain Toyota models.
NHTSA's Complete Statement:
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is deeply committed to ensuring public safety by reducing traffic-related injuries and fatalities on our roadways. As part of that core mission, we have built one of the world's most effective defect investigation programs. Our Office of Defects Investigation carefully reviews the more than 40,000 consumer complaints NHTSA receives each year and takes action -- including opening an investigation -- when we find the data warrants doing so.
While there are some groups that are continuing to raise the specter of potential electronic issues around unintended acceleration, the exhaustive 10 month study conducted by the best and brightest engineers at NASA and NHTSA released last February made clear there are two mechanical causes of sudden, high-speed unintended acceleration in certain MY 2002-2007 Toyota vehicles: pedal entrapment and sticky pedals. We have found no evidence of any electronic cause of sudden, high-speed unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles or any others.
Last week, a report by an independent panel appointed by the National Academy of Sciences further corroborated the findings of the NASA study and NHTSA's conclusion of its Toyota investigations.
NHTSA takes its responsibilities to safeguard the driving public very seriously -- we will continue to monitor any complaints we receive about these vehicles and others and take appropriate action when warranted.
As a safety and public health agency, the primary focus of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is ensuring the highest standards of safety on the nation's roadways. NHTSA's extensive investigation into Toyota unintended acceleration concluded last year when the agency released its final report with NASA describing in detail its findings.
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In keeping with NHTSA's safety mission, the agency continues to closely monitor incoming complaints of unintended acceleration to ascertain any new information. We sent two investigators to evaluate and inspect a vehicle based on a complaint we received (complaint number 10428551) and did not find any evidence linking the car to known causes of unintended acceleration cases. NHTSA concluded that the speed of the vehicle could easily be controlled by the brakes. In contrast to other UA complaints, the vehicle displayed ample warning lights for the driver indicating the car had encountered problems. The complaint number is 10428551 and can be retrieved at http://www-odi.nhtsa.dot.gov/complaints/. Again we do not have an open defect investigation. The purpose of the vehicle inspection was to look into the allegations made by the complainant, which is not uncommon.
Also to answer your earlier question about videos - Consistent with federal law and long standing agency practices NHTSA does not release pre-decisional information.
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