Investigation ordered on Prius hybrid brakes

Mechanic Matt Lee displays a recalled gas pedal Wednesday at a Toyota dealership in Palo Alto, Calif. Dealers nationwide have said they will extend their hours to try to catch up with the onslaught of repairs.

Paul Sakuma

WASHINGTON -- Americans should park their recalled Toyotas unless driving to dealers for accelerator repairs, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood warned Wednesday -- then quickly took it back -- as skepticism of company fixes grew and the government's probe expanded to other models in the United States and Japan. Questions now are being raised about the brakes on Toyota's marquee Prius hybrid.

The Prius was not part of the most recent recall, but Japan's transport ministry ordered the company to investigate complaints of brake problems with the hybrid. LaHood said his department, too, was looking into brake problems. About 100 complaints over Prius brakes have been filed in the United States and Japan.

Harried dealers began receiving parts to repair defective gas pedals in millions of vehicles and said they'd be extending their hours deep into the night to try and catch up. Toyota said that would solve the problem, which it said was extremely rare, of cars unaccountably accelerating.

At a congressional hearing, LaHood said his advice to an owner of a recalled Toyota would be to "stop driving it. Take it to a Toyota dealer because they believe they have a fix for it." His comments prompted new questions and rattled Toyota stockholders, causing shares to plunge 8 percent before they recovered, declining 6 percent for the day.

LaHood later told reporters, "What I said in there was obviously a misstatement. What I meant to say ... was if you own one of these cars or if you're in doubt, take it to the dealer and they're going to fix it."

LaHood said his department had received new complaints about electronics and would undertake a broad review, looking beyond Toyota, into whether automobile engines could be disrupted by electromagnetic interference caused by power lines or other sources. Toyota has said it investigated for electronic problems and failed to find a case pointing in that direction.

Toyota Motor Corp., in a statement, said if owners were experiencing problems with the accelerator pedal "please contact your dealer without delay. If you are not experiencing any issues with your pedal, we are confident that your vehicle is safe to drive."

But the damage was done for many drivers. Meredyth Waterman, who bought a 2010 Toyota Corolla in December, said the alarming statements from Washington confused her and she planned to wait until her dealer told her to come get the fix to bring her car in for repairs. "If it is largely believed to be a rare instance, why would he tell people to stop driving their cars?" said Waterman, of Burrillville, R.I. "It was an irresponsible thing to say."

The confusion came as the world's No. 1 automaker dealt with fresh probes in the United States and Japan over the Prius, the best-selling gas- electric hybrid.

Since October, Toyota first recalled about 5 million vehicles over problems with floor mats trapping gas pedals and now, some 2.3 million vehicles amid concerns gas pedals could become stuck or slow to return to the idle position. The latest recall involves 2009-10 RAV4 crossovers, 2009-10 Corollas, 2009-10 Matrix hatchbacks, 2005-10 Avalons, 2007-10 Camrys, 2010 Highlander crossovers, 2007-10 Tundra pickups and 2008-10 Sequoia SUVs.

Lawmakers who are now digging into the recalls said they also would look into the Prius. Rep. Bart Stupak, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce investigative subcommittee, said his panel would request a briefing from Toyota officials about the hybrid.

New York Rep. Edolphus Towns, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sought more information about the acceleration issue from Yoshi Inaba, chairman and CEO of Toyota Motor North America and asked the question on the minds of Toyota owners: "Is it safe to drive the Toyota models that have been recalled?"

Towns' panel, which is planning a Feb. 10 hearing, also wants more details on how Toyota handled complaints about pedal entrapment, reports of stuck accelerators and electrical problems. Other panels in the House and Senate also are planning hearings.

Joan Claybrook, who formerly led Public Citizen, a watchdog group, noted that Toyota told owners during last year's recall to remove floor mats to keep the accelerator pedal from sticking. "I don't think that's what the issue is. I think it has to be electronic when it slam dunks and takes off and goes 120 miles an hour," Claybrook said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, meanwhile, asked CTS, the Indiana company that made the pedals behind Toyota's latest recall, if the same problem could exist for other automakers. CTS makes pedals for Honda, Nissan and a small number of Ford vehicles in China, but the auto supplier has said the issues are limited to Toyota alone.

LaHood, who plans to speak with Toyota President Akio Toyoda about the recalls, said the government is considering civil penalties against the carmaker. But he also said that it appeared "Toyota is making an all-out effort to do all that they can to fix these cars."

Need help?

If you want to know if your vehicle is affected or what to do about it, call:

Toyota help line: 1-800-331-4331

Gene Reed Toyota: 797-8000

West Ashley Toyota: 573-1975

on the WEb: www.toyota.com

What to do?

-- Consumer Reports magazine's instructions are simple: First, brake hard. Then put the car in neutral. When you come to a stop, turn off the engine. The engine may keep revving loudly while you try to stop, but don't turn it off until you stop. Turning off the engine means you lose power-assisted steering and brakes, and if you turn the key too far, you could lock the steering wheel. Consumer Reports has a video demonstration on at http://tinyurl.com/yegvesp

-- Don't pump brakes. Press them firmly and steadily. Toyota warns that pumping will deplete the vacuum assist. If that's depleted, you'll need to put much stronger pressure on the pedal, and it still might not be enough to stop safely.

-- If all else fails, turn off the engine. If you can't put the vehicle in neutral, then turn the engine off. This will not cause loss of steering or braking control, but the power assist to these systems will be lost.

-- Toyota advises: If the vehicle is equipped with a conventional key-ignition, turn the ignition key to the accessory (ACC) position, but don't remove the key from the ignition, because that will lock the steering wheel.

If you start your car by pressing a button instead of turning a key, push and hold the start-stop button for at least three seconds to turn off the engine. Do not tap the button.

What's affected?

Toyota's recall of eight car and truck models over potentially sticky gas pedals, which affects 2.3 million U.S. vehicles:

• 2009-10 Corolla

• 2009-10 Matrix

• 2005-10 Avalon

• 2007-10 Camry

• 2010 Highlander

• 2007-10 Tundra

• 2008-10 Sequoia

• 2009-10 RAV4

Toyota's recall of models due to gas-pedal entrapment under floor mats, which affects 5.3 million vehicles:

• 2007-10 Camry

• 2005-10 Avalon

• 2004-09 Prius

• 2005-10 Tacoma

• 2007-10 Tundra

• 2008-10 Highlander

• 2009-10 Corolla

• 2009-10 Venza

• 2009-10 Matrix

• 2007-10 Lexus ES350

• 2006-10 Lexus IS250/IS350

• 2009-10 Pontiac Vibe (built by a joint venture between Toyota and General Motors Co.)

The following models, encompassing 1.7 million vehicles, are affected by both recalls:

• 2005-10 Avalon

• 2007-10 Camry

• 2007-10 Tundra