Toyota modifies start-stop buttons in case of panic

(Photo: David Dewhurst / Toyota)

Toyota has quietly made a change in most of its models that could save lives if a car’s accelerator sticks open — and it’s not the one at the center of the $1.1-billion settlement of Toyota’s unintended acceleration lawsuits.

Toyota has modified the start-stop buttons in most of its models so that they shut the engine off after three quick pushes, or after being continuously pushed for two seconds. That’s two big changes from the old policy that required a continuous three-second push in order to shut down the power.

The start-stop button was cited as a factor in the crash that killed an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer and three family members outside San Diego three years ago. The investigation found that in a panic situation, a button required a much longer push than intuitively would be expected to turn off the engine. But Toyota officials defended it at the time, saying it was important to make sure that drivers or their passengers didn’t turn off the car inadvertently by brushing against it.

A few remaining Toyota or Lexus models — Toyota didn’t specify which ones — are yet to get the change to a two-second push. The change to the two-second push started a year ago, says Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons in an email to USA TODAY. And all Toyota and Lexus vehicles, starting in August, 2010, now have buttons that will shut off the engine after three quick pushes, as one might expect in a panic situation.

Lyons says the changes made to vehicles with the start-stop buttons resulted in part from recommendations from a committee of the SAE, once called the Society of Automotive Engineers, the auto industry’s engineering brain trust. They effect only cars with the buttons, part of the “electronic key” ignitions instead of the traditional kind where you insert a metal key and twist it to the start the engine,

In order to reach a preliminary settlement of its unintended-acceleration lawsuits, Toyota said it would pay to have pedals of many of its non-hybrid models modified so that they, too, would turn off the engine if they detect multiple pushes as if the driver were trying to make a panic stop.