Braking news

Must … stop … Can’t … stop …

Doh! The once-unstoppable Toyota is now suffering the worst side effect of runaway success: runaway cars. First there was the recall prompted by reports of certain Toyota vehicles getting stuck in GO! GO! GO!  mode — gas pedals that don’t let up on acceleration.

Well, it's no Pinto.

Now there’s a new worry that some Priuses — the Earth-loving, tree-hugging green cars brought here to save the world — are literally unstoppable, at least temporarily. But when split-second action is the difference between a sudden but otherwise uneventful stop and a deadly crash, a “temporary” problem suddenly has permanent results.

The brakes are breaking down.

NPR reports:

Toyota Motor Corp. confirmed that a design problem with the anti-lock brake system on its new-generation gas-electric Prius caused some drivers to experience a brief lag time when they hit the brakes.

Adding more fodder for Jon Stewart and other smart-alecky types (Moi? I never!), Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood tossed a little gasoline on the smoldering wreckage by advising Toyota owners to stop driving their cars  (implied: STOP NOW BEFORE WE ALL DIE!!) and have the accelerator assembly in question fixed.

Detroit might be watching gleefully as Toyota twists in the wind, but let us remind you that these are the nice folks who brought you the Vega, Volare and Pinto, the latter having gained great fame for its explosive tendencies. As in kablooee, a gasoline-fueled bomb on wheels.

Lots of folks (“the media,” as radio pundisites like to say) have taken Toyota and U.S. guvmint types to task for not lurching into action more quickly. Lives are at stake! But before we loose the lynch mobs again (still recovering from hunting down rogue bankers and attending tea parties), take a moment to see how serious the problem is.

NPR continues:

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, which would conduct the Prius investigation, says it has received 124 complaints from owners of the vehicle, including four allegations that crashes occurred as a result of the alleged defect. NHTSA officials say the reports allege a momentary loss of braking capability while traveling over an uneven road surface, pothole or bump.

Well, auto industry types estimate that Toyota sold roughly 1.5 million Priuses between 1997 and 2009, and at least half of those were sold in the United States. Let me trot out my calculator: 750,000 divided by 250 (we’ll factor in unreported problems, it could be less, probably is more).

That comes to roughly one in 3,000 cars with bad brakes. Allegedly. Note that these cars momentarily lost braking capacity while traveling over uneven road surface, pothole or bump. Ever try to stop a car on a pothole-pocked road? Not pretty.

I have been behind the wheel during brake failure (’77 Chevette, jumped to berm on exit ramp in nick of time, downshifted to stop). Being aware of your surroundings at all times will prevent a lot of accidents. Even when your brakes fail, as long as you don’t panic.

Anyway, one defect in 3,000 might be pretty bad by Toyota standards, but I’ll bet any of the Detroit (former) Big Three would have killed to have that kind of quality control just 20 years ago. Or maybe even 10 years ago, as Ford Explorers were rolling out of control when certain tires (facetiously referred to as Shredmaster 2000) went kablooee! at inopportune moments.

So what’s a concerned Toyota driver to do?

I dunno, take it to the shop and get it fixed. Do I look like a mechanic?  (Don’t answer that!)

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