ToyotaTM is launching its biggest recall ever to prevent sliding floor mats from jamming accelerator pedals, a problem that may have killed four in the crash of a runaway Lexus.
The automaker on Tuesday warned the owners of 3.8 million late-model Toyota and Lexus vehicles to immediately remove any driver's side floor mat. Official notice will go out to owners next week.
The federal government, which also issued a "safety alert" on the mats, says it has 102 reports of jammed accelerators in Toyota and Lexus models, including 13 crashes, five deaths and 17 injuries.
Four died Aug. 28 in a Lexus driven by an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer that crashed at an estimated 120 mph.
In a panicked 911 call, the doomed passengers said the accelerator was stuck and they were unable to turn off the engine. The Lexus was a dealer service loaner that may have had mats from another model.
That accident "was certainly an eye opener for all of us," said Irv Miller, a vice president of Toyota's U.S. sales operation.
Toyota has had scattered reports of "unintended acceleration" in various models beginning with the 2004 model-year Prius. In September 2007 it recalled all-weather mats, a dealer-installed accessory, that might pull loose in Toyota Camrys and Lexus ES 350s. The problem was fixed with firmer securing points for the mats.
This time, Toyota asked owners to remove any driver's side mat. Replacing it even with a paper mat could be worse, since it can slide and jam, spokesman John Hanson says. Toyota is working on a replacement mat or other solution.
An additional factor in the recall decision was that many affected models have stop-start buttons that must be pushed for three seconds to shut off the engine.
Industry watchers said the recall should not greatly harm Toyota's strong brands. "If a weaker brand name were to do this, the media and consumers would be all over it," says Alexander Edwards, president of consultants Strategic Vision.