February 9, 2010 / 5:36 PM / in 8 years

For extra cautious Toyota driver, a high-speed death

<p>An accident picture provided by the lawyers representing the family of Guadalupe Alberto, of the wreckage of a 2005 Toyota Camry following an April 19, 2008 crash in Flint, Michigan, that killed Guadalupe Alberto. The crash is the focus of one of many lawsuits against Toyota which is facing questions over the safety of its vehicles. REUTERS/Alberto family/Handout</p>

FLINT, Michigan (Reuters) - Guadalupe Alberto knew the route from her house on a residential street to the tiny grocery store she ran with her husband so well that her family jokes she could have driven it with her eyes closed.

It is barely one mile from the house she and Abraham Alberto moved into in 1965 to the A&G Market, which they opened in 1980.

Both are in Flint, about 75 miles north of Detroit.

The route was simple: two blocks up Copeman Boulevard to Ballenger Highway, where she turned right and hugged the right lane, driving slowly until she reached the store.

“That was one of her main scares. She didn’t like driving fast,” said her son, Douglas Alberto.

So afraid was Guadalupe Alberto of driving fast that she steadfastly avoided freeways, her family says.

“And she never passed a car, even if she was following someone going five miles-per-hour,” said her daughter, Lilia “Lupe” Alberto. “She’d stay right behind them.”

Somehow on a Saturday afternoon in April 2008, the 77-year-old grandmother with an aversion to fast driving was killed when her 2005 Toyota Camry suddenly accelerated out of control on her quiet neighborhood street.

Alberto’s Camry sped past other cars, zoomed through the busy four-lane Ballenger Highway, and hit 80 miles per hour before it clipped a tree, went airborne and struck another tree on Copeman Boulevard, only four blocks away from her home, according to her family and a pending lawsuit against Toyota Motor Corp.

The five-foot-tall, 100-pound (45 kg) Guadalupe Alberto tried desperately to apply the brakes, to no avail, her family and the lawsuit say. She was killed instantly.

Alberto’s family say her death is a reminder of the life-or-death stakes in a growing debate over a problem that U.S. safety regulators have been tracking for seven years: a growing number of complaints of “unintended acceleration” in Toyota vehicles.

The Alberto lawsuit was filed last August, 11 days before an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer and three family members died in a similar incident involving a Lexus ES 350, the flagship of the Lexus line, Toyota’s luxury brand.

<p>Lilia Alberto (R) and her brother Douglas hold photos showing their deceased mother Guadalupe Alberto, who was killed in 2008 when the 2005 Toyota Camry she was driving crashed, in Flint, Michigan February 8, 2010. Toyota Motor Corp. is facing a growing number of lawsuits from consumers who complain their vehicles suddenly accelerate or may do so, and want the world's largest automaker to pay for it. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook</p>

That fatal crash near San Diego drew national attention because of a chilling and desperate call from the car to an emergency operator moments before the four were killed. The Lexus model they were driving reached 120 miles per hour prior to the crash.

A month after the California incident, Toyota made the first of a series of safety recalls that have since reached more than 8 million vehicles worldwide for problems involving the risk that an accelerator can either become jammed by a floormat or stuck in the open position.

Alberto’s 2005 Toyota Camry was not among the models recalled for potential acceleration problems.

The Michigan lawsuit says that despite the massive recalls, Toyota has not gone far enough to really deal with its vehicles’ safety problems, and should have included more cars.

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Toyota declined to comment. “As is always our policy, we don’t comment on pending litigation,” Toyota spokesman Mike Michels said.

A few hours after the crash, police arrived at the A&G Market to tell Abraham -- a slight, quiet man -- that the woman he married 55 years earlier in their native Honduras had been killed.

“She never crossed Ballenger,” Douglas Alberto said of his mother’s carefully chosen route and the busy road she sped across moments before she died. “Never. It’s a major four-lane street.”

When the crash occurred, the speedometer was left frozen at 80 miles per hour and the odometer showed just 17,000 miles.

Another daughter, Xiomara, bought the car for her mother for Christmas in 2005 because she was afraid Guadalupe’s old Buick was unsafe.

Her children say they are pressing ahead with the lawsuit because their mother was the center of their family and they do not want others to suffer as they have.

“The main reason we took on this case is that we don’t want any more injuries or fatalities,” said Lilia. “Toyotas are not perfect.”

“The 2005 Camry should have been one of the first ones to be in the recall,” said Lilia Alberto. “How many more deaths do they want to have before they have to put it in the recall?”

Reporting by Bernie Woodall, editing by Kevin Krolicki and Claudia Parsons

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