While Toyota struggles to assuage drivers' concerns and maintain their loyalty, there's still a lot of anxiety out there on the road.
You can spot a Toyota driver from a mile away — literally — because many leave a landing strip in front of them in case their brakes fail. Then, when some jerk cuts in front of them, they don’t honk or curse. They just slink into the next lane, like they're trying to blend in with the asphalt.
“I probably leave maybe a six- or eight-car distance in front of me,” said Virginia Vessa, an elementary-school teacher on Long Island, who just bought her second Toyota Avalon at the end of 2009.
When people cut in front of her, Vessa says, she just starts all over again, building that distance up.
The whole time, she’s reminding herself over and over again — like a CD player stuck on an endless loop — what to do in case the pedal doesn’t return to its proper position.
“It’s a stressful situation,” she explained.
Toyota has apologized and promised to repair the accelerator problem as quickly as possible but Vessa isn't the only Toyota driver running a feedback loop in her mind.
“Definitely, it’s affected my imagination,” said Ann Ferrante, an English teacher at the Rhode Island School of Design, who drives a 2008 Camry. “I sometimes forget the car could suddenly accelerate — but not very often.”
“I know what you’re supposed to do — Put your foot on the pedal, then put it in neutral,” Ferrante said. “But then, I start to think … On the highway, where will you be? The middle lane? The passing lane? How should you negotiate getting to the shoulder? It’s not so easy.”
Some Toyota drivers pump their brakes repeatedly, as if they’re trying to prove to other drivers — and themselves — that the brakes work.
They're so self-conscious, they might as well have a scarlet-letter “T” on their windshields.
Even the confident drivers are showing signs of cracking.
“The car is safe. The pedal does not stick, but every time my slush-covered foot slips off of the accelerator, I think I'm five minutes away from my fiery high-speed demise,” David Mantey wrote in a blog post on product-design site PDD.net.
John Goodman, a Camry driver from Tuckahoe, NY, thinks the “hysteria” about the recall is a little overblown but he’s got a new ritual: Putting the car in neutral whenever he’s stopped — whether it’s warming up the car in the garage or at a traffic light.
And then, there’s the vindication for drivers like Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Kat Kirsch, a fellow Prius driver from El Segundo, Calif., who thought something wasn’t right — but no one believed them.
“I have felt the braking problem and originally thought it was a human error versus a vehicle error,” Kirsch said, adding that the recall has definitely changed her driving habits. “I’ve been tailgating a lot less,” she explained.
Other drivers get a little nervous when they see a Toyota on the road, but many feel bad.
“I can’t imagine what they’re going through,” a friend said to me the other day.
Of course, road goes with rage like peanut butter with jelly, so not everyone is so compassionate.
Tim, a Mitsubishi Endeavor driver from California who asked that only his first name be used, said he’s found Toyota drivers annoying since the recall.
“I have noticed Prius drivers driving much slower and being much more overly cautious along my precious Highway 17 commute every day,” he said. “It further delays my already delightful commute!”
To all the non-Toyota drivers out there, like Tim, Vessa said, “Be cautious!”
Ferrante added, “Keep your distance!”
They both agreed that they would have less anxiety about driving had Toyota handled it differently.
So what would they say to Toyota if they had the chance?
“Be honest and direct in dealing with problems,” Ferrante said in her teacher’s voice.
Vessa added: “I want my money back!”
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