Toyota Recall: Safe Stops and Crash Tests

Last Updated Oct 6, 2010 5:48 PM EDT

Just as Toyota was announcing good news about its recall campaign this week -- that it had completed its sudden acceleration repairs -- it took another dent in its safety reputation. The announcement of the first results in new, tougher government crash tests reduced the rating for the top-selling Camry from the top grade of five stars to three.

The new ratings, toughened after almost all cars and trucks were getting five stars, compares vehicles in the same class as well as reflecting test results. Most 2011 models get lower scores than they did for 2010 under the old system. Toyota says the 2011 Camry, virtually unchanged from the 2010, is just as safe as last year's model. But of the initial 33 test results released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the 2011 Camry (at right) was one of just two with ratings lower than four stars. And its up-and-coming rival Hyundai Sonata (pictured below left) got five stars. However, Hyundai did have to issue a recall recently for a steering column fix on all Sonatas built since December 2009.(Look for more about the new crash test ratings from MoneyWatch shortly.)

Meanwhile, Toyota said earlier this week that its dealers had repaired about five million vehicles involved in recalls triggered by reports of sudden acceleration. The recalls involved both sticking accelerator pedals and floor mats that might wedge against the accelerator. Toyota also said that complaints to the company of unintended acceleration had dropped about 80% since April. And the company noted that all its 2011 models will include brake override -- a system that assures that the brake overrules the accelerator if both are pushed at the same time or the engine keeps racing for any reason. Several other auto companies already had this in place. (See Safest Alternatives for Toyota Buyers).

Should this feature make you feel safer? Testing says yes. Automotive web site Edmunds.com tested a 2010 Camry without the system and then again after Toyota had installed the brake override software. Without the feature, the test driver just managed to override the engine with maximum braking but an average owner in a panic situation likely couldn't do it, says Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing. With brake override, though "The Camry immediately cut the throttle back to idle, and the pressure needed on the brake pedal wasn't much more than normal braking."

The new system will not however, help in instances where the driver hits the accelerator thinking it is the brake. The Wall Street Journal reports NHTSA investigations show that's what happened in numerous complaints of unintended acceleration.

So how can you help keep yourself safe from such incidents?

Check out the pedals in unfamiliar cars. If you get a new car or are in a rented or borrowed car, get a careful feel for the placing of brake and accelerator pedals, which can vary substantially in different vehicles. "You don't look at your feet while driving, so you need to be sure you have the right feel for the pedals," says Dan Edmunds.

Don't brake with your left foot. At Driving Dynamics, a firm that trains corporate employees in safer driving, instructors often have to cure students of this habit. "When you brake with your left foot, you can inadvertently keep pressing on the accelerator with your right," says company CEO Bill Buff.

Practice putting the car in neutral. Clearly the best remedy for an engine that keeps accelerating is to put the transmission in neutral while hitting the brakes. But with automatic transmissions, "Many people automatically shift from park to drive," says Dan Edmunds. "They may not know where neutral is, especially in a panic situation." So find a deserted road or big parking lot, get the car up to 50 mph or more and try putting the transmission in neutral while still accelerating. Practicing this a few times might save you from an accident later.

Photos courtesy of the manufacturers

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.

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