Scores of Toyota owners filed formal complaints with the U.S. government about mysterious problems with gas pedals, brakes and steering in recent years, sometimes after terrifying accidents. The complaints, often described in remarkable detail, exist inside an enormous database intended to alert federal investigators to early signs of looming safety problems.
But these needles — reflecting serious threats that merit full investigation — exist in a haystack of gripes by thousands of other drivers complaining to the government about much less meaningful matters, according to a comprehensive review by The Associated Press of more than 750,000 complaints filed over more than 15 years.
They include complaints about slick pavement during snow, inconsiderate mechanics, paint chips, sloshing gasoline during fill ups, pot holes, dim headlights, bright headlights, inaccurate dashboard clocks and windshield wipers that streak. The driver of a 10-year-old Toyota Tundra in wintry Nottingham, N.H., with 80,000 miles on the odometer complained about rust under his pickup.
The government's complaint files represent its principal barometer to detect approaching storms, such as recent claims by some Toyota owners about unintended acceleration, unreliable brakes and awkward steering. But the ability of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to foresee widespread safety problems — compare new complaints to old ones, identify trends and disregard aberrations — is a central issue for two oversight hearings on Capitol Hill this week as Congress considers whether the government acted quickly and aggressively enough toward Toyota to protect consumers.
"It really is the principal early warning system," said Mike Brownlee, former head of NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation, which collects the complaints. "It's the auto safety equivalent of epidemiology."
But if NHTSA's car complaints system is akin to public health network monitoring for new disease symptoms and outbreaks, it isn't one run by doctors, nurses and hospitals. The government's vehicle safety data is submitted by the equivalent of patients themselves, and some are hypochondriacs eager to chronicle their ailments.
"Can't break (sic) effectively on snow," wrote the owner of a 2008 Prius in Mentor, Ohio, who described the effects of driving 35 mph in the white stuff. But really, who can?
"Brakes did not work on ice," wrote the driver of a new Prius, this one in Plymouth, Minn., describing the experience of many northern drivers. The complaint filed last month said the hybrid slid 15 feet at 20 mph on an icy road but didn't hit anything before the car finally stopped.
In Oceanside, N.Y., a driver complained earlier this month about the 2009 Honda Accord illuminating the word "eco" in tiny green letters on the dashboard when the car is driven at top fuel efficiency. "It still annoys me," the driver wrote, even after nine months. "I have no issue with the eco feature, just the stupid, distracting light."
A 2005 complaint — apparently a prank that slipped into the government data — said the driver's engine "blew up" after he fired a rifle into it. "Why did this happen?" the owner asked.
An irritated mother of two young children in Salem, Ore., in a 2005 Dodge Caravan didn't appreciate her minivan's automatic door locks that failed one rainy day while she carried a toddler in her arms. "They just don't work," she wrote. "You people here at the NHTSA ... have got to help us."
The wife of the driver in a $40,000 Mercedes SUV in West Bloomfield, Minn., complained that her husband was commuting at 20 mph on a road with one-inch of snow and turned his steering wheel but — despite new tires — the three-ton SUV slid straight ahead. "He ended up smashing the front end on a huge stone and richocheting to a fire hydrant," she said.
There was a problem — then there wasn't — for a family in Aiken, S.C., who last month complained to the government about a loud rattle that occurred once in its 2008 Toyota Avalon. "I started the car back up just to see what would happen and it purred like a baby," the owner wrote. "My question is, what caused it to act like that and what would happened if I had been driving? Was it the computer? Will it happen again? These things I would like to have an answer."
The complaints — more than 30,000 every year — reflect the love-hate relationship Americans have with their cars and trucks. Some manufacturers are the subjects of dozens of complaints each month, until problems make headlines: Toyota's complaints surged from about 400 per month to more than 4,300 during the first two weeks in February.
"I own a 2009 Toyota Camry," wrote a driver in Tom's River, N.J. "Need I say more?"
Behind a mortgage or rent, vehicle payments — plus fuel, insurance and maintenance — are often the next-costliest household expense. Drivers don't tolerate even minor glitches on such expensive items, and they frequently urge the government to pressure manufacturers to shoulder their repair costs by announcing a formal recall.
"Frankly, I just don't have the money to keep sinking into this lousy car," wrote the owner of a 2000 Ford Focus in Stickney, Ill., who reported a key stuck in the ignition.
In Port Clinton, Ohio, the driver of a 2006 Pontiac G6 reported steering problems earlier this month. "I am pretty sure, I have to replace the steering column, which will cost a lot of money, which I don't have right now, being a college student."
Within the data — roughly equivalent to 15,000 printed pages — are heart-wrenching stories of loss. Jill Whitmyer of Marysville, Pa., described a Harley Davidson accident in September 2001 that killed her ex-husband, Jack, and 6-year-old son, Aaron. "I would like to know why there is not a law prohibiting children from riding as a passenger on a motorcycle," she asked the government.
"I thought I would just bring it to your attention. Thank you for listening."
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