IB News talks to Rhonda Smith of Sevierville, Tennessee.
Smiy recently testified during the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearings into Toyota about the runaway Lexus 350 that nearly took her life on October 12, 2006 when she was driving in Tennessee on Highway 66 entering I-40.
Her comments sparked a mixed reaction of support and skepticism, even cynicism about the truthfulness of her testimony. Many say she did it for money.
Smith answers the critic’s questions in this interview with IB News Editor, Jane Akre.
Q: Rhonda, going back to that day of the runaway Lexus, you said you engaged the emergency brake firmly, what happened?
“I had first feet on the brake first to try and stop it; then I engaged the emergency brake. Nothing. It continued to accelerate.”
Q: Are you sure you actually engaged the emergency brake? “The emergency brake was firmly down with my left foot. I firmly engaged the emergency brake. It had no effect whatsoever.
“The first thing I said was, 'I can’t believe this is happening to me.' ”
Q: Did you have the cruise control on? “When I merged onto the interstate I was not in passing gear; the cruise control light went on. At that point I thought it was the cruise control, so I disengaged the cruise control thinking that’s what made it kick into passing gear. And that did nothing.” (The passing gear occurs when you want to pass someone and you accelerate and the car kicks into another gear allowing you to pass).
Q: How fast were your driving when the car took off? “I think speed limit was 70 mph. I was probably up to 65 mph when car took off.”
“It may not be relevant but my father was a race car driver. My dad always drove fast so inadvertently he taught me to drive fast, so I had been accustomed to driving fast and I think that had something to do with preparing me to do what I did in driving the car. I used to enjoy driving fast. That helped me some, I didn’t have a heart attack or anything, it helped me handle the situation.
"It’s not like I didn’t grow up knowing anything about cars. I grew up with cars and he taught me to drive skillfully and fast. I enjoyed that car up to that point. I knew neutral and gearing down and I had always been taught about braking and first and second gears and what they do. I knew the car shouldn’t be in reverse, but if I had put it in all of those other ones, reverse probably wasn’t going to work either.”
Q: What happened then? “When I was on the cell phone, my husband told me to put it in reverse. Maybe it would take the transmission out and maybe it would flip the car and to hold on and that’s when I put it in reverse, but it did nothing. The only gear I did not try is park. I started to put it in park three times. I said, ‘Here I go.’ On the third time I said, ‘Here I go,’ for some reason I was scared to put it in park. I think then God intervened because the car started slowing, the speedometer started going down, so slowly.
"That is when it finally slowed enough to finally pull over to the side of the road, standing on the brakes with both feet, with it in park. At that point the motor kept going slower and slower, and I was able to stop. It was revving slowly, up and down, down less, and down less, and up less. Then at 35 mph the motor did not cut off. At 33 mph the engine died and the dash light stayed on and the radio stayed on. My husband had put it in neutral. The car tried to start twice after the engine was off, on its own.”
Q: Did you try the start/ stop button? (Toyota says to hold down the button for three seconds to start and stop the car.) “I did try to turn it off on the road. I know I tried to turn it off but I wasn’t counting, I really don’t know. I was pushing the button. The only thing I had control of was the steering and in the manual it says not to turn the car off.”
Q: Was there traffic when you were out of control for six miles? “There were three lanes of traffic, it wasn’t bad. I was on the interstate. There wasn’t a lot of traffic. I still drive that all the time going to Knoxville and I know people say I should put it behind me. I don’t think about this every day and I’ll be just fine, but this has brought it up. Sometimes I can still get very emotional. A lot of times I can talk and be just fine, but it will still hit me at times.”
Q: Skeptics say your story was scripted by an attorney. “That’s such a compliment, (laughs). No, it wasn’t. My husband and I did that. We worked really hard on that all weekend. We didn’t know we were going up there until Friday.”
Q: Have you been paid by Sean Kane or any injury attorneys? “We have not been paid anything. We e-mailed Sean Kane (with consumer group, Safety Research & Strategies) and he was very interested in what we had, and he thought our testimony was very good, and he was going to testify. When we were talking to him on the phone, Congressman Stupak called us and that was when it happened. “
Q: Now after the accident what did you do with the car? Were you out $30,000? “I wanted to put it back in the hands of Toyota. The car sat here for a long time. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t want to sell it and be responsible for what might happen. I hoped the electronics might reset itself.
“Yes, we contacted the dealer and asked them. At one time we thought about a lawsuit, then we knew that would be too big and we contacted the dealer and all we asked was if they would give us our money back on the car. They said no. That’s when we really kept trying to contact Toyota to see if they could give us the money back on the car. They wouldn’t return our calls at the California corporate offices. We went to another dealer and they asked us why there were low miles, and we told them it had accelerated on us and it had been inspected and they told us nothing was wrong with the car. They said the floor mats were the problem because it had double floor mats, and that that was the problem, so we traded it in.”
Q: Did have double floor mats? “Yes. We had wanted winter floor mats and vinyl floor mats. When we got the car it had carpet floor mats and winter on top of it.”
Q: Did you see the floor mat trapping the accelerator pedal? “No. When I was driving and both feet were on the brakes, I mean this, I wanted to make sure both of my feet were firmly planted on the brake pedal so I looked down. I would have seen that. I remember both feet on that brake. I remember that as if it was yesterday.”
Q: Critics ask why did you do that (trade it in)? Wasn’t there a little voice that said it wasn’t the floor mats? “There was a big voice. What did they think I was going to do with that car? What would they have done? That was the last, last resort. “We traded it in, we had no choice. We got my husband a Toyota Tundra. But we sold it, it’s gone. We had no problems with it. He didn’t drive it much.”
Q: How long had you been trying to contact Toyota? “Approximately 6 months. Since the accident, October 12, 2006. My first notes say we contacted them in December. All we were asking for was our money back on the car.”
Q: Do you have a lawsuit going? “No all we wanted was our money back on the car. No. We’ve not been contacted by anyone except Mr. David Strickland, the head of NHTSA. He called and apologized to me on February 25th. He was sorry it happened and he wanted to
apologize for the way everything was handled.”
Q: Did Business Week or the Wall Street Journal ever contact you? “Business week didn’t. The Wall Street Journal called me and I did not return their calls.”
Q: Did you have a problem with driving a Toyota or did you think that car was a lemon? “My husband didn’t have a bad feeling about driving that truck. Yes I did have a problem. We told them they needed to recall those cars because I was keeping up on the NHTSA complaint lines and I could see (complaints) them more and more. I knew the ‘07 Lexus ES 350, a lot were having problems. I knew there was something wrong with that car.”
Q: Critics say there is something in it for you and you’re lying? “I’m sorry they feel that way because I’m not lying and the only thing in it for me is to get Toyota to do something about the SUA (sudden unintended acceleration) before more people get hurt and killed. That’s all I want, and that’s all I wanted.” #