Toyota recall: What to do if your car's on the list

As posted on January 27, 2010 on www.cnnmoney.com

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, senior writer 

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Last week Toyota recalled 2.3 million vehicles, some of them among America's most popular cars, and this week announced it will stop making those models while it works to find a fix for the problem.

But if you already own one of these cars, the automaker says you could safely continue to drive it, as long as you aren't noticing any problems. To make matters even more confusing, most cars involved in this recall were already involved in an earlier, unrelated recall involving gas pedals sticking on floor mats.

If you think your car might be subject to the latest recall, here's what you need to know.

Which cars are involved? This specific recall affects Toyota's 2009-2010 RAV4, Corolla and Matrix models; the 2005-2010 Avalon; 2010 Highlander; 2007-2010 Tundra and the 2008-2010 Sequoia; and some 2007-2010 Camrys (only those with gas pedal assemblies made by a specific Toyota supplier; your dealer can check). No Lexus or Scion models are involved.

What's this recall for? Over time, gas pedals in some of the recalled cars become sticky. At first, they just become a little harder to push down and, when you lift your foot off the gas, slower to come back up. In the worst case, the pedal on these cars can become stuck part way down. That, of course, could mean the car keeps accelerating even after you take the foot off the gas.

How's Toyota going to fix it? The automaker is still working on a solution, which will probably involve replacing all or part of the gas pedal assembly.

If there's no solution yet, and the cars supposedly are safe to drive, why recall them now? Toyota says it just wants to make Toyota owners aware of the issue so that if they start having problems, they know what to do. Once Toyota finds a solution, drivers will be notified and asked to bring their car to a dealership for repair.

What if I notice problems? If your gas pedal starts to feel sticky, stop driving immediately, Toyota says. Pull over in a safe place, then call a dealer and have them come get your car.

What if the gas pedal is really stuck? If it's stuck part way down, applying the brakes should be enough to slow the car and bring it under control. Don't pump the brakes, though. That will just weaken your power brakes. Instead, press and hold the brakes. Also, at the same time, you can shift the transmission into neutral, which will stop the engine from driving the wheels.

It's good to know what to do in cases like this no matter what type of car you drive, said Jake Fisher, senior automotive engineer for Consumer Reports magazine. Although even in cars affected by this recall, it's a rare occurence, he said, it can happen in almost any car model as it gets older.

What if I'm not having any problems... yet? Since the problem develops gradually over time, Toyota says, you should have plenty of warning before the pedal gets really sticky. If you're concerned, take your car to a Toyota dealer and they can tell if your gas pedal is still OK. Remember, though, there is still no prescribed remedy.

Beyond the recall, why stop making and selling all these cars? Toyota says it wants to ensure the safety of its customers and restore confidence in their brand. While that may well be true, Toyota is also under a legal obligation to stop selling cars that are under a recall, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Since Toyota still hasn't figured out a remedy for this problem, a Toyota spokesman said, they had to stop production until a fix could be found. Otherwise, Toyota would be filling dealer inventories with cars that needed to be fixed and couldn't be sold until they were.

What's all this about floor mats? This latest recall is unrelated to an earlier, and still ongoing, recall of 4.2 million cars to fix a problem in which the gas pedal could get hung up on the car's floor mats. Most of the cars -- 1.7 million of them -- involved in this recall are also covered by that one.

What's the remedy for the floor-mat problem? In that case, Toyota is altering the actual pedal itself to make it shorter and, therefore, less likely to get stuck on the lip of the mat. Toyota also is replacing the floor mats in some cars. In some Toyota and Lexus models, the automaker also is installing a "brake override" system, which immediately cuts engine power to the wheels when the brake pedal is pressed. In the meantime, Toyota is advising drivers who haven't yet had their cars worked on to remove the floor mats.

What else is Toyota doing to prevent problems like this? Toyota says it is making "brake override" -- a system that cuts engine power to the wheels as soon as the brake pedal is pressed -- standard equipment on all of its cars.

Is there more Toyota could do? Some experts, including those at Consumer Reports magazine, have suggested that Toyota change how the "keyless start" system in its cars operates. In some Toyota and Lexus models, the driver can start or turn off the car without using the key by just pressing a button in the dashboard.

If one of those models were to start accelerating wildly, a driver could turn the engine off while still driving by pressing and holding that button for three seconds. But a panicked driver, especially one who wants to keep both hands on the steering wheel of his speeding car, is unlikely to do that. Instead, he's more likely to press the button briefly but repeatedly. In a Nissan with keyless start, for instance, three presses like that would do the trick.

Consumer Reports suggests that Toyota alter how its keyless ignition works to match Nissan's model. Toyota has not said it plans to do that.