Toyota, the world’s largest auto manufacturer, has recently come under fire for engineering defects that have contributed to injury and death, and may be present in many of its vehicles.

As nightmarish as it sounds, drivers of Toyota vehicles and its luxury brand Lexus have reported dangerous incidents of unintended acceleration. In one tragic case, a California Highway Patrol officer and three members of his family were killed in a high-speed traffic accident while driving a Lexus ES350. According to reports, a mismatched floor mat in the officer’s vehicle caused his accelerator pedal to stick in a downward position.

To put an end to the problem, Toyota has issued recalls requiring that millions of owners remove their driver-side floor mats and has authorized dealerships to modify their accelerator pedals. After some delay, the automaker even announced an unprecedented sales halt on eight of its most popular-selling vehicles -- including select models of the RAV4, Corolla, Camry and Tundra. However, the sales halt lasted less than two weeks before a fix was announced.

As media outlets run with the story, blogs are buzzing with accounts of near-death experiences and accusations of scandal. Even U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has warned Toyota owners to “stop driving it” -- before retracting that statement.

The result has been a PR nightmare for an automotive giant that, until now, has benefited from a nearly impeccable reputation for quality, reliability and value. As daily reports emerge chronicling the seriousness of the issue, industry insiders have begun to question what the future holds for the automotive giant. Lawsuits are being raised, stock is plummeting and costly fines may even be imposed.

Industry news aside, current and potential Toyota owners want to know, “How will Toyota’s recalls affect me?” We’ll address the seriousness of the issue, discuss Toyota’s advice on what to do if you experience unintended acceleration and explain what Toyota is doing to fix the situation.

Putting Toyota’s Recalls in Perspective

Toyota’s accelerator pedal recall affects eight vehicles ranging in model year from 2005 to 2010. In total, that’s 4 .2 million cars worldwide -- 2.3 million in the United States. Though these figures are large, the number of reported unintended acceleration incidents is actually quite small.

Illustrating this point, Consumer Reports (CR) recently analyzed complaints of unintended acceleration in 2008-model-year vehicles filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The study looked at reports submitted before Aug. 28, 2009 -- the day the California Highway Patrol officer and his family died in their Lexus ES350. CR picked this date to limit the amount of influence media reports would have on complaints filed. In total, they identified 5,916 complaints for 2008 vehicles filed during this period. However, there were only “166 cases in which the complaint described sustained unintended acceleration that the driver found difficult or impossible to control.”

What’s more, the Los Angeles Times reported in late December that Toyota had known about unintended acceleration problems in its vehicles for nearly a decade -- but that the problems had only caused 19 fatalities since 2001. While the Times says that’s "more deaths from that problem than all other automakers combined," it certainly isn’t as staggering of a figure as the number of cars recalled. In fact, that's a fatality in only .3 percent of complaints, and only 2.8 percent of complaints describe acceleration that was uncontrollable.  

To be clear, unintended acceleration is a serious issue. However, the low number of incidents reported leads most analysts to believe that the problem is not widespread. Therefore, owners of affected vehicles shouldn’t panic.

These are the vehicles affected by Toyota’s accelerator pedal recall issued in January 2010:

Toyota

These are the vehicles affected by Toyota’s floor mat recall issued in September 2009:

Toyota  

Lexus

Interestingly, the CR study also revealed that while Toyota vehicles constituted 41 percent of the complaints, the issue of unintended acceleration wasn’t exclusive to them. In fact, reports of unintended acceleration were found in 22 brands of automobiles -- with Ford coming in second place with 28 percent of complaints. Chrysler was third with nine percent.

What to Do If You Experience Unintended Acceleration

According to Toyota, drivers who experience unintended acceleration should apply steady pressure to the brakes and shift their cars into neutral. This will prevent their vehicles from accelerating and slow them down.

Drivers unable to shift to neutral should turn off their vehicles by either pushing the Engine Start/Stop button down for three seconds or by turning the ignition key to the ACC position. Drivers with a traditional ignition should not remove the key, as this will lock the steering wheel.

As always, drivers who experience problems on the road should promptly turn on their hazard lights to caution other drivers, and merge into the far right lane or a shoulder if possible.

Unintended acceleration is a dangerous and serious problem. Though few drivers will encounter it, those who do should not drive their cars until it is resolved. Instead, contact an authorized Toyota dealer to schedule a date and time when you can have the problem fixed free of charge.

According to Toyota, owners of affected vehicles who are not experiencing problems with unintended acceleration should wait for Toyota to contact them before attempting to schedule a fix.

The Costs for Toyota Owners

Toyota’s fix for the accelerator pedal issue may very well restore its lineup to full working order. However, it will need to invest lots of time and money to repair its damaged reputation. While it remains unclear on how this will affect current and potential owners, reports indicate a mixed bag.

To recoup losses, it’s very likely that Toyota will offer greater deals and incentives now that its sales ban has been lifted. In the meantime, The Detroit News reports that “Toyota Motor Corp. is giving U.S. dealers payments of up to $75,000 to help win back customers' trust in the wake of a massive safety recall.” Other than asking authorized dealers to “do the right thing,” Toyota hasn’t given them much instruction on how to allocate the funds. Therefore, industry insiders are encouraging owners to ask dealers to pay for towing and car rental fees incurred as a result of the recalls.

Some drivers have even raised individual and class-action law suits against Toyota for its accelerator defect, as well as how it handled the ordeal. Forbes reports that one law firm, Beasley Allen, is suing Toyota for “breach of warranty, fraudulent concealment and other claims related to Toyota’s alleged failure to disclose problems with sudden acceleration.”

Perhaps the biggest cost to Toyota owners will be how the automaker’s damaged reputation affects their vehicles’ resale values. According to the Indianapolis Star, “Owners trying to sell used Toyotas haven't seen prices fall, but market researchers say values could ease later this winter if the automaker fails to quickly solve its gas pedal problem.” Some consumer groups are already re-evaluating Toyota’s lauded reputation for producing high-quality vehicles.

Still, most analysts agree that the dip in value will only be a short-term effect. While this is good news, it also means that current owners shouldn’t attempt to sell or trade-in their Toyotas in the near future. Jack R. Nerad, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book, recently told the Detroit News: "While dealers are savvy about these things and understand that the car can still be re-sold once proper repair has been identified, they might be reluctant to accept the vehicle in trade, or offer a lower price for it than would otherwise be the case."

For now, other automakers are banking on Toyota’s inability to resurrect its solid build reputation. In an attempt to grab some of Toyota’s market share, competitors -- like Ford, General Motors, Chrysler and Hyundai -- are offering attractive incentives to current Toyota owners who switch to one of their vehicles.

More Trouble is Brewing

The good news is that Toyota has identified a fix for its accelerator pedal woes and resumed selling the eight affected models. Currently, dealers say that their priority is fixing cars that have already been sold, not fixing cars awaiting sale on their lots. However, car shoppers who wish to buy these vehicles can work with dealers to have their accelerator pedals fixed prior to taking ownership.

The bad news is that Toyota has issued a new recall -- this time for the 2010 Toyota Prius and 2010 Lexus HS. According to the AP, “Toyota says it is recalling about 437,000 Prius and other hybrid vehicles worldwide to fix brake problems -- the latest in a string of embarrassing safety lapses at the world's largest automaker.” Combined with the floor mat and accelerator pedal recalls, the AP says “the number of vehicles recalled globally by Toyota Motor Corp. has ballooned to 8.5 million…”

For the latest news on Toyota’s recalls, see U.S. News’s Toyota recall information page.