Is Your Car's Power Start Button Dangerous?

Posted: Oct 07, 2009 11:00 a.m.

Toyota recently decided to recall nearly four million cars after reports that a floormat design can trap a vehicle's accelerator pedal and lead to uncontrolled acceleration.  The defect may have contributed to at least five traffic deaths.  One important detail about the cars involved in the reported accidents, however, hasn't received much press coverage until now: none of the vehicles used conventional keys.

USA Today explains, "If you're driving a Toyota or Lexus that has a start-stop button instead of a traditional turn-key ignition switch, the car can't be turned off in an instant in an emergency. The button must be depressed for three seconds -- an eternity in a panic situation."  

Toyota, according to Kicking Tires, "Says that the three-second depression time is meant to keep people from accidentally hitting the button and killing the engine, which would also knock out power steering and other systems."  Power steering could prove important to a driver attempting to control a vehicle that was accelerating out of control. 

In fact, Toyota advises users NOT to rely on the start/stop button in an emergency.   In a consumer advisory issued in connection with the recall, the company urges drivers faced with unintended acceleration to "shift the transmission gear selector to the Neutral (N) position and use the brakes to make a controlled stop at the side of the road and turn off the engine."  For vehicles equipped with a conventional key, the company notes, drivers can "turn the ignition key to the ACC position to turn off the engine," though they should not remove the key "as this will lock the steering wheel."  But drivers of push-button-equipped cars have no ACC position to rely on.

USA Today notes, "The official line from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with stop/start buttons."  National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spokesperson Rae Tyson tells USA Today, "It's a new technology that drivers need to familiarize themselves with."

Automakers, however, may re-think the design of the start/stop button in light of Toyota's experience.  USA Today notes, "In a new Buick LaCrosse, which USA TODAY auto editor Fred Meier has been testing, the button must be firmly pressed but appears to shut the engine off faster."  That button is also "tucked away where it's less likely to get bumped, not staring right back at you like on many Toyota and Lexus models."

If you're in the market for a new car, check out the U.S. News rankings of this year's best cars as well as this month's best car deals.