NEW YORK — Toyota dealers across the country were swamped with calls Wednesday from concerned drivers but had few answers a day after the company announced it would stop selling and building eight models because of faulty gas pedals.
Toyota insisted the problem – sudden, uncontrolled acceleration – was "rare and infrequent" and said dealers should deal with customers "on a case-by-case basis." But drivers of Toyotas and those who share the road with them were left with uncertainty.
In an unprecedented move, the company said late Tuesday it would halt sales for the eight models – which make up more than half of Toyota's U.S. sales volume – to fix the gas pedals. Last week, Toyota issued a recall for the same eight models, affecting 2.3 million vehicles.
A private firm said it had identified 275 crashes and 18 deaths because of sudden, uncontrollable acceleration in Toyotas since 1999.
In North Palm Beach, Fla., Clare Roden showed up at a Toyota dealership worried about the 2010 Camry she purchased recently. She was relieved when she was told her accelerator was not a problem part.
"I didn't want to get out on I-95 because people are not very safe drivers there anyway," Roden said as she waited in the lobby while mechanics checked her car. "I wanted to get it down here as soon as possible."
The dealership owner, Earl Stewart, said about half his cars are affected by the recall, a huge hit to business. He said customers had been flocking in with concerns about the accelerator on all of the models. He sent some home with loaners.
"They're very frightened," he said. "Many people are concerned their accelerator pedal is going to stick and they're going to be involved in an accident."
At Walser Toyota in Bloomington, Minn., owner Doug Sprinthall took calls all day Wednesday from people wanting to know if cars they once thought were dependable were affected by the freeze. He didn't have much to tell them.
"It's hurry up and wait," he said. "We've got a lot of faith in Toyota. They're a good company. These things are not unheard of. ... What's different about this is it's just so many vehicles."
Toyota has said the problem appears to be related to the buildup of condensation on sliding surfaces in the accelerator system that help drivers push down or release the gas pedal. The gas pedal mechanism can wear down, causing the accelerator to become harder to press, slower to spring back or stuck.
Outside safety experts say it could also have to do with the complicated electronic sensors that relay the message from the gas pedal to the engine, the design and location of the sensor system and a lack of an override mechanism.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told WGN Radio in Chicago the government had urged Toyota to stop making the cars while it investigated the problem.
The sales and production halt involves some of Toyota's best-known lines, including the Camry and Corolla sedans and the RAV4 crossover, a blend of an SUV and a car. RAV4's sales surged last month.
In addition, the problem could spread to Europe, where a similar accelerator part is being used, said Toyota spokeswoman Ririko Takeuchi. She declined to give the number of cars affected. The company was studying possible responses there, including a recall.
Toyota had little to say about how common the problem is.
"It's rare," Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons said. "I'd like to say even more than that but right now I'm held to rare, rare and infrequent."
Asked whether the problem was worse for older cars, he said: "There's so many factors involved. That's why we're a little careful with our words here. We are finding it in some lower mileage vehicles depending on the environmental conditions."
Compounding Toyota's problems, the carmaker said late Wednesday it will recall an additional 1.09 million vehicles in the United States due to the risk of floor mats interfering with accelerator pedals. Toyota has already recalled 4.26 million vehicles in the U.S. over the floor mat problems.
Sean Kane, director of Safety Research and Strategies, a consumer group that conducts research into motor vehicle safety issues, said his firm has identified 2,274 incidents of sudden unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles leading to at least 275 crashes and 18 deaths since 1999.
The firm cites as sources the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, direct reports from drivers and incidents mentioned in lawsuits. Toyota would not confirm the numbers.
The supplier of the gas pedals used in the recalled car and trucks, CTS Corp. of Elkhart, Ind., said it knew of only a few cases of drivers having problems with accelerators. It said it's working with Toyota to design a new pedal.
Safety experts said drivers should watch for warning signs, such as when the act of pressing the gas pedal starts to feel rougher or when the pedal does not fully return to its regular position.
"If you don't have that problem, I would probably say it's probably fine to keep driving your Toyota because this really only happens in rare instances," said Rik Paul, automotive editor at Consumer Reports. "If you do experience any roughness in the accelerator pedal, don't drive it any more and take it to your dealership."
Consumer Reports testers found the best thing to do is to hit the brake hard and hold it firmly, then shift into neutral and steer the car off the road. Drivers should not pump the brake, Paul said.
The fallout for Toyota was nearly immediate. The companies that own the Alamo, Avis, Budget, Enterprise and National rental car chains said they were removing all their cars that fell under the recall. Hertz also said it would temporarily stop renting vehicles involved in the recall.
For the company that runs Avis and Budget, that amounts to 20,000 cars. It stressed that Toyotas made up only a small percentage of its fleet.
Competitors were already rushing to take advantage of Toyota's misfortune. General Motors said it planned to offer Toyota drivers deals on its Chevrolet, GMC, Buick and Cadillac cars and trucks. And Toyota will almost certainly face lawsuits.
The recall and sales are another blow to battered automakers, and a bruise for the image of Toyota, which spent decades building its image as a maker of safe, reliable cars and cultivated a fiercely loyal customer base made up largely of baby boomers.
For years, Toyota has dominated big-name quality studies by groups like Consumer Reports and J.D. Power and Associates, and other automakers sought to emulate the company's production methods.
Now some Toyota drivers are worried about repeats of what happened last month to Michael Teston, a physical therapist from Maunelle, Ark. He was driving a 2006 Toyota 4-Runner – a brand not included in the recall – and pulling into a gas station when the car suddenly lunged forward.
"Fortunately, there was a large pole in front of me and it slammed into a pole," he said. "The back wheels were spinning wildly out of control. The back end was bouncing up and down."
Teston said he put the SUV into park, which disengaged the accelerator and caused the back wheel to stop spinning. He said the dealership ran tests on the vehicle but could not find the problem.
Now he is awaiting further direction from Toyota. Because he refused to drive the vehicle back from the dealership, the dealership arranged to send someone to drop the it off at his house, and it is now sitting in his driveway. He said he has filed complaints with the Arkansas attorney general's office and with NHTSA.
"I was not going to drive it because it is a safety hazard," he said. "I think that Toyota should be ashamed of the way they have handled it and they should be held accountable for what they have done."
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Amy Forliti and Brian Skoloff, AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein and AP Auto Writers Tom Krisher, Stephen Manning and Ken Thomas.