Toyota is learning the hard way that speed and candor are essential in coping with unexpected calamity. It should have followed the classic 1982 example of Tylenol, when a murderer dosed some of its capsules with cyanide on store shelves, killing seven people. Within six days, Johnson & Johnson promptly recalled and destroyed 31 million capsules, switched to tamperproof packaging and explained its actions in television ads and news conferences. Sales rebounded and the product remains a favorite among consumers and doctors.
Toyota will likely survive, but its trouble is self-inflicted. It got reports more than a year ago that some of its models were unexpectedly racing out of control. It first blamed floor mats for interfering with accelerator pedals but later also found things wrong mechanically. It ordered fixes in Europe but waited nearly six months to fix the same problem on new cars in the United States. Worse, it delayed fixing cars already on the road. It now has recalled 8 million cars over gas pedal problems.
Now comes a somewhat belated recall of 437,000 of its most-praised Priuses and other hybrids, including 155,000 in the United States, for braking problems.
Spectacular crashes surfaced, notably that of an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer who lost control of his 2009 Lexus on a freeway when the gas pedal stuck. It crashed and burned after a 120-mph runaway, killing him and four family members. A flood of lawsuits and congressional hearings have kept Toyota crashes in the news.
Even if you have one of the listed recalls, the odds of runaway acceleration are probably not much worse than a smashup driving any car. As for Prius owners, the long odds are probably about the same. Toyota’s president, Akio Toyoda, conceded at a media briefing that rarely the brakes can falter momentarily on a slippery pavement, “but if you make sure to push firmly down on the brakes, they will work without fail.”
Consumer Reports advises, in sudden unintended acceleration, to brake firmly without pumping, shift the transmission into neutral, steer to a safe place and stop the car, shut off the engine with the transmission still in neutral, and finally shift into “park” or with a manual drive set the emergency brake and call for help.
Consumer Reports says automakers should reduce unintended acceleration by designing vehicles so that the brakes can stop them in reasonable distance even with the throttle wide open, raise gas pedals so they can clear even a thick floor mat, provide a simple and easy engine shut-off, require sufficient brake pressure before shifting from “park” to “drive,” and simplifying shifting into “neutral.”
Beyond all that, don’t forget that all driving is risky. Drinking, texting, phoning, tailgating, inattention and speeding cause far more accidents than Toyota’s missteps.