Last month, Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a safety advisory alerting the owners of 3.8 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles to remove the driver’s side floor mats in their cars. The mats, Toyota said, could slide forward and interfere with the gas pedal, causing a dangerous unintended acceleration situation. The recall is the largest ever for Toyota and the fifth largest recall of a consumer product in the United States.

Toyota formally notified the NHTSA of the recall in a letter on October 5. It said owners of the affected vehicles would be notified by first-class mail beginning in later October and ending in December. The first mailing will alert owners to the potential dangers posed by the floor mats but will not offer a fix. Toyota continues to study the problem for possible solutions. When the auto manufacturer decides on a solution, owners will be contacted “about the availability of a free remedy” in a second mailing.

The recall encompasses the following Toyota and Lexus models: 2007 – 2010 Camry; 2005 – 2010 Avalon; 2004 – 2009 Prius; 2005 – 2010 Tacoma; 2007 – 2010 Tundra; 2007 – 2010 Lexus ES 350; and 2006 – 2010 Lexus IS 250 and 2006 – 2010 Lexus IS 350.

Toyota announced that the solution would not amount to a massive floor mat recall. That’s because studies conducted to date haven’t pinned the problem on the floor mats alone or accelerator pedals alone. Research suggests, rather, that the floor mat design and accelerator pedal design in tandem cause the unintended acceleration problem.

When the NHTSA first began investigating Toyotas for in March 2007 following unintended acceleration complaints, researchers found that the one-piece nonarticulating accelerator pedals in the affected vehicles could become trapped easily in the grooves of an improperly installed or mismatched floor mat.

Further exacerbating the problem is the push-button ignition featured in some models, which makes it more difficult for drivers caught in an unintended acceleration dilemma to stop their vehicles. Most drivers of cars with a push-button ignition aren’t aware that they must press the button for a full 3 seconds to cut off the engine.

Because the problem appears to be more complex than floor mat design alone, Toyota is researching solutions that would enable drivers to overcome a jammed accelerator in any case – an “on-vehicle countermeasure,” as one Toyota spokesman put it.

A likely solution would be the installation of a “smart pedal” or software that would favor the brake pedal over the gas pedal whenever both are pressed simultaneously. Such safety features are already present in most German-made vehicles and Chryslers. Smart -pedal technology would also work in Prius models, which, some owners claim, accelerate unexpectedly even in the absence of a floor mat.

“This is an urgent matter,” transportation secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. “For everyone’s sake, we strongly urge owners of these vehicles to remove mats or other obstacles that could lead to unintended acceleration.”

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