SOUTHLAKE -- 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, 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 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. with the software needed to read the data after 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 its recall of more than 8 million vehicles. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration said this week that 52 people have died in crashes linked to accelerator problems.
When the AP asked Toyota to explain what its recorders 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 information includes vehicle speed, the accelerator's angle, gear shift position, whether the seat belt was used and the angle of the driver's seat.
When AP specifically asked 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 attorneys obtained in a deadly crash last year in Southlake and a 2004 fatal accident in Indiana.
In Southlake, four people died after their 2008 Avalon ripped through a fence, hit a tree and flipped into a pond on Dec. 26. An EDR readout obtained by police listed as "off" any information on acceleration or braking.
In an Evansville, Ind., crash that killed 77-year-old Juanita Grossman, attorneys for her family said that 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 show that emergency personnel found Grossman with both feet on the brake.
The attorneys said a Toyota technician examined her 2003 Camry, but a Toyota representative said there was "no sensor that would have preserved information regarding the accelerator and brake positions at the time of impact," according to Safety Research & Strategies, a Rehoboth, Mass.-based company that does vehicle safety research.
E. Todd Tracy, who represents the family of Sharon Ransom, a passenger in the Southlake crash, contends 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.
"This goes directly to defendants' notice of the problem and willingness to cover up the problem," Tracy said.
Randy Roberts, an attorney for Linda Hardy, the widow of the Avalon's driver, said that "when I found out the Toyota black box was so uninformative, I was shocked."
In response, Toyota said: "Because the EDR system is an experimental device and is neither intended, nor reliable, for accident reconstruction, Toyota's policy is to download data only at the direction of law enforcement, NHTSA or a court order."
Toyota says it had a single laptop in the U.S. to download EDR information because it is still a prototype, despite being used since 2001. Three other laptops that can read EDRs were delivered this week to NHTSA for training, Toyota said, and 150 more are due by April for commercial use.
General Motors, Ford, Chrysler and Nissan representatives said their recorder data is available to third parties. Honda spokesman Ed Miller said the data is only readable by Honda and is made available only by court order.
The AP review of lawsuits across the country found many in which Toyota was accused of refusing to reveal EDR and other data, and not just in sudden acceleration cases. Lawsuits in California and Colorado have accused Toyota of systemically withholding key documents and information in a wide variety of accident cases, but no judge or jury has found against the car company on those allegations.
Some crash experts say Toyota shouldn't bear too much criticism for failing to capture large amounts or specific kinds of data, because EDRs were initially built for air-bag deployment and not necessarily to reconstruct wrecks. They also vary widely from vehicle model to model, said W.R. "Rusty" Haight, owner of a San Diego collision investigation company.
"That doesn't mean I'm hiding something or preventing you from getting something," Haight said. "It simply means that, in the development of a car, other considerations took priority -- nothing more."