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Toyota safety recalls - What does it mean to me?

Consumer Reports News: January 27, 2010 07:30 PM

With all the news circulating about Toyota, it is worth stepping back to see what it means to you, the consumer.

Last Thursday, Toyota issued a voluntary safety recall for eight models totaling 2.3 million vehicles to address potential problems related to sticking accelerator pedals: the 2005-2010 Avalon, 2007-2010 Camry, 2009-2010 Corolla, 2010 Highlander, 2009-2010 Matrix, 2009-2010 RAV4, 2008-2010 Sequoia, and 2007-2010 Tundra. This recall is in addition to the recall this past fall regarding floor mat pedal entrapment. (Read: " More than floor mats: Toyota recalls 2.3 million vehicles for sticking accelerators.") Yesterday, the automaker announced that it would halt production of those vehicles and ask dealers not to sell them until a correction can be made. (Read " Toyota suspends sales, production of recalled vehicles.") So far, Toyota has not announced what the fix will be available.

Toyota believes that the problem is a progressive wear issue. The company cites that the pedal may mechanically stick in a partially depressed position or return slowly to the idle position.

Toyota claims these cases are rare, and the company is being aggressive in addressing the problem at great expense.

Most of the models in this recall are relatively new, and therefore may not have excessive wear. However, drivers are cautioned to be sensitive to the action of their accelerator pedal and contact a local dealer should it not perform smoothly as expected.

Naturally, it would be preferred that every product be perfect, but the reality is that many vehicles face recalls. Although alarming, a recall means a manufacturer is addressing a problem and therefore is welcomed. Below we address common questions we have been receiving related to this latest notice from Toyota.

How common is the problem?
While there have been cases reported of sudden acceleration to the company and government, the incidence rate is extremely low. However, in analyzing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) safety complaints database, we found Toyota had a significantly higher number of complaints than other companies for the sampled year, 2008. The complaints in that database, which likely does not represent all cases, numbered 52. Between them, Toyota and Lexus accounted for more than a third of all the unintended-acceleration incidents we found among 2008-model vehicles. Seen another way, Toyota racked up more unintended-acceleration complaints than Chrysler, GM, Honda, and Nissan combined. But Toyota was not alone. The sudden-acceleration incidents were distributed over 22 brands, with 36 complaints logged for Ford Motor Company vehicles. (Read: "Analysis shows over 40 percent of sudden-acceleration complaints involve Toyotas.")

As Toyota puts into place a correction for the accelerator pedal mechanism, addresses pedal clearance (from the previous recall), and spreads smart-throttle technology across its model range, it should significantly diminish the likelihood of future sudden-acceleration-related accidents.

How does this impact Toyota's reliability rating?
It is important to separate reliability from recalls. Toyota remains among the most reliable brands and automakers in the industry. And we expect Toyota reliability to continue to be strong. (Learn more about car reliability.)

Our reliability survey does not classify repairs due to recalls as problems; in fact, subscribers/owners are specifically told to exclude recalls when listing the problems with their vehicle over the last year. That's because the causes and effects of recalls are very different from other unforeseen mechanical problems.

A recall is a correction to a problem that most owners never actually had. The work is performed at the manufacturer's expense, even if the vehicle is out of warranty. And a recall is aimed at preventing a problem from occurring, as opposed to a repair that may require multiple visits to fully address the issue.

Does Consumer Reports still recommend Toyota vehicles?
Consumer Reports has temporarily suspended its "recommended" status for eight Toyota vehicle models and one Pontiac model that may have accelerator pedals that can stick and cause unintended acceleration.

What about buying a used Toyota, or driving an older model?
We are also advising used-car buyers to avoid purchasing any of the affected vehicles until this issue is resolved. Because Toyota claims that the accelerator problem is progressive based on wear, drivers of older (pre-2010) models should be particularly wary of signs of sticking. Of course, a pre-owned model will have more wear than a new one, and therefore may be at a greater risk for related problems.

What lessons can be learned through this for all motorists?
As Toyota has chased the elusive causes for unintended acceleration, it has highlighted the importance of technical service bulletins (TSBs) and safety recalls. When you purchase a used vehicle, regardless of brand, let this serve as a reminder to have it serviced by a qualified mechanic that can ensure the vehicle is up to date with TSBs and recalls.

In addition, all drivers should be familiar with the proper and safe way to control a car experiencing unintended acceleration: Brake firmly, put the transmission in Neutral, steer to a safe location, and turn the car off.  (Read: "How to cope with sudden unintended acceleration" for more information..")

For more information on the Toyota recalls, see our unintended acceleration guide.

Jeff Bartlett

Updated 1/29/10

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