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Toyota recall: a Band-Aid for a gaping wound?

Toyota recall: a Band-Aid for a gaping wound?



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SALT LAKE CITY -- The largest car recall in Toyota history just got a lot bigger. Starting in January, Toyota will reconfigure or replace gas pedals in nearly 4 million Toyota and Lexus cars and trucks.

But is it enough to fix the problem? Ron Knott, a mechanic at Hansen Service near 200 North and 200 West in Salt Lake City, says it's a bit like having your doctor treat your symptoms instead of the disease that's causing them.

The problem is runaway acceleration. It was thought at first to be blamed on gas pedals that were somehow becoming caught or stuck on the floor mat.

"The real problem is with the ECM -- the brain or computer of the car," says Knott.

That could explain why Toyota's recall, which will fix or replace gas pedals in 3.8 million cars made between 2004 and 2010, also includes plans for some models to get a brake override system. If the car's computer senses the accelerator and brake pedals are used at the same time, it would cut power to the engine. Knott worries, however, that it could lead to accidental loss of power, for example, when someone taps the brake to disengage cruise control.

"Some dealers are flashing the ECM for a fix," Knott says, explaining that it's like rebooting your computer. But Knott says you don't know if that's fixed the problem unless and until it happens again.

So what would he advise? "Turn the key off, stay calm and just let it coast," Knott says.

The recall affects Camry model years 2007-2010, Prius model years 2004-2009, Avalons from the 2005-2010 model years, the 2005-2010 Tacoma, the 2007-2010 Tundra, and the Lexus ES 350 from model years 2007-2010, and 2006-2010 Lexus IS 250 and IS 350.

The brake override system will be offered for the Toyota Camry and Avalon and for all models of Lexus affected by the recall. Owners of those cars, considered a higher priority and risk, will start receiving letters in the mail about the specifics by the end of the year. Owners of the other five models will be eligible for the recall on a rolling schedule throughout the balance of 2010.

The voluntary recall was first announced in September, a month after an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer, his wife and daughter and his wife's brother were killed when a Lexus ES 350 sped out of control near San Diego. The expansion to include gas pedals on nearly 4 million vehicles was announced Wednesday.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration confirms it has investigated cases of runaway acceleration in Toyotas eight different times since 2003. In two of those cases, the investigations led to small-scale recalls. In the other six, the agency found nothing wrong with the vehicles, but said Toyota's braking system could lose effectiveness in a situation in which the throttle is fully engaged.

In the San Diego crash earlier this year, the NHTSA found the floor mat used in the car was actually designed for a different Lexus, and that the design of the gas pedal could have increased its risk of becoming engaged by the floor mat.

Toyota issued a statement earlier this month saying safety investigators confirmed there was no defect with their vehicles, so long as floor mats were properly installed. The NHTSA issued a response to that, saying simply removing the floor mats didn't correct that underlying symptom of the problem.

E-mail: bbruce@ksl.com

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Becky Bruce

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