On a mid-July morning, Doug Landry pulled into the passing lane in his 2009 Toyota Avalon. He passed a car at 90 kilometres an hour, then took his foot off the gas when the speedometer hit 110.
The car sped up, racing along Highway 11 north of Huntsville, Ont. When it hit 155 kilometres an hour, Mr. Landry said, he put both his feet on the brake pedal and all but stood on the brakes to try to slow down.
"You've got two feet on the brake and the car's not screeching to a halt," he recalled. "It's going as if there's a ghost in the car. It was as if I had somebody with their foot on the gas."
This is sudden, unintended acceleration and it lies at the heart of a serious and growing crisis for Toyota Motor Corp. in the face of two massive recalls of its best-selling North American vehicles.
Toyota, now the world's largest auto maker, has begun repairing potentially sticky accelerator pedals in some 2.3 million vehicles by inserting a tiny piece of steel. An earlier recall, made in November and expanded last month so that it now covers about 4.8 million vehicles - including Mr. Landry's Avalon -affects cars with floor mats that might cause a gas pedal to stay depressed.
The two recalls are for different reasons, but they share the goal of eliminating possible causes of sudden acceleration or failure to slow down when the brakes are pressed. They have, however, created confusion among drivers, in part because some models are subject to both recalls. And to add to consumer confusion and consternation, the U.S. government said yesterday it has begun an investigation of the brake system on the 2010 Prius, a vehicle that is not subject to the floor mat or accelerator pedal recall.
In addition, there is a growing chorus wondering whether the separate recalls for pedals and floor mats have diverted regulators from examining another potential cause: the electronic throttle control system that works in combination with the accelerator pedal to control the speed of a car. That system is a key focus in several U.S. lawsuits filed against Toyota.
Safety advocates and retired regulators have urged the company and governments to examine the throttle system.
"It really appears that there is a problem in the electronics," Joan Claybrook, former head of the U.S. government's National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, told The Washington Post this week. "There have been incidents of acceleration when the floor mats were already taken out."
Senior Toyota executives insist the company has never come across an incident of unintended acceleration caused by a car's electronic control unit.
Transport Canada officials echoed those statements Thursday, as did NHTSA, but both say they will undertake a deeper examination of the electronic systems.
"It's something we're going to have to review as part of this process," an official with Transport Canada said.
A review of past incidents believed to have been caused by floor mats will be undertaken to determine if there's any correlation between those and sticky pedals, Transport Canada said.
There was no confusion on Mr. Landry's part when he was speeding along Highway 11 last July. He couldn't stop the car.
The incident finally came to end for the 60-year-old Toronto stockbroker when he got his white Avalon to slow down to 30 kilometres an hour and pulled off the highway into a long parking lot, where his wife yanked the keys out of the ignition and the car stopped. He says he immediately checked the gas pedal and found it was clear of the floor mat.
Two months later, after reporting the event to NHTSA, which passed it on to Transport Canada, he was still trying to figure out what went wrong. He turned the car over to a Transport Canada investigator for a couple of days in October.
The probe concluded that a non-Toyota floor mat had been sitting on top of the one that came with the car and had probably jammed the accelerator.
Mr. Landry, who received the written report from Transport Canada this week, disputes that finding, saying that the first thing he did when the car finally came to a halt was to check the accelerator pedal. He also points out that the car didn't stop until his wife turned off the ignition.
"Show me how a floor mat is stronger than a 215-pound guy with two feet on the brake," he said.
He would like investigators to try to duplicate the situation exactly by placing floor mats on top of the pedals and determine how soon the car would stop with someone of his weight applying full pressure.
The Transport Canada report says it's difficult for brakes to reduce the engine power being generated by a wide-open throttle and the energy of a vehicle moving at high speed.
"Furthermore, extended application of the brakes will cause the pads and rotors to overheat, which will further reduce braking capability," it adds.
The federal department says it has records of acceleration problems for a large number of auto makers and the frequency of such events among Toyota vehicles is typical of the industry.
"Specifically, with respect to Toyota vehicles, we have records of acceleration problems of one form or another for most every year," Transport Canada said in written responses to repeated requests by The Globe and Mail for answers about when the federal government first heard about sudden acceleration and sticky pedal problems.
But things changed last September, it says, when the department noticed a slight rise in complaints about acceleration, "some of which we determined to be related to floor mat issues." No other single cause stood out.
Since the recall last year of several vehicles to change accelerator pedals and install a brake override system to deal with the floor mat problem, complaints by Canadian Toyota owners about sudden acceleration have increased, federal government data show.
There has been another increase since Jan. 21, when Toyota announced a recall of Corolla, Camry, RAV4, Avalon and other models to deal with sticky pedals. Transport Canada says that's the first time it became aware of the sticky pedal issue.