Toyota retailers are scrambling to respond to a decision to recall 3.8 million vehicles linked to incidents of sudden acceleration.

Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. told dealers of the campaign today – after it was announced to the public. The timing has led to some confusion.

“We haven’t received any notification,” says Earl Stewart, owner of Earl Stewart Toyota of North Palm Bay, FL. “This has been one of the most confusing situations to the dealers and customers, and a little embarrassing.”

Bob Moran, owner of Acton Toyota in Littleton, MA, says he, too, was not told of the situation until an announcement already was made.

“They notify the public and get them all stirred up, and then the phones start ringing here,” Moran tells Ward’s.

Normally, Toyota would notify its dealers first. But given the severity of the situation, there was no time to do so, a spokesman says.

“We thought this was important enough to get out early,” Bryan Lyons says, noting all dealers now should be informed about the recall.

Sudden-acceleration incidents involving Toyotas gained national prominence two months ago with the deaths of an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer and his family. Their ’09 Lexus ES 350, on loan from a local Lexus dealer, reached speeds of 120 mph (193 km/h) before soaring over an earthen roadway barrier and into the upward slope of a riverbed.

The car then burst into flames.

Under conditions of the recall, dealers will be trained and receive the necessary components to trim three-quarters of an inch off the accelerator pedals.

Additionally, dealers will receive instructions on how to reconfigure floors in the Toyota ’07-’10 Camry, ’05-’10 Avalon and ’07-’10 Lexus ES, says spokesman John Hanson, noting all models implicated in the recall eventually will be eligible for footwell modifications.

“The Camry, Avalon and ES constitute more than half of all vehicles being recalled,” he says. “(Toyota is) concentrating on those right now. The reconfiguration of the floor sounds more complicated than it is; it just involves removal of a pad under the carpet and replacing it with a different center pad.”

After being told by Ward’s of the prescribed fixes, Moran and Stewart are left scratching their heads.

Stewart claims his dealership has been removing or replacing floor mats over the past several months without receiving compensation from Toyota.

“We didn’t get paid for any of this, and I don’t know if we will for (the recall),” he says. “I’ve never had more calls from customers, and I’m at a loss for words.”

Says Moran: “They’re telling people to go to your local dealer to (fix) the pedal. We don’t know how; they haven’t told us how.”

Toyota says the repairs will begin in “early 2010,” perhaps January. Eventually the recall will encompass other Toyota vehicles, including: ’04-’09 Prius, ’05-’10 Tacoma, ’07-’10 Tundra, ’06-’10 IS 250, and ’06-’10 IS 350.

After the initial dealer fixes, Toyota will begin shipping factory-produced replacement pedals to dealers, noting customers who already have had their accelerators modified can still get the new part if they so desire.

In addition, vehicles with genuine Toyota or Lexus accessory all-weather floor mats will be provided with newly designed replacement driver- and front-passenger mats.

Meanwhile, the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. says Toyota also intends to install a brake override system on the Camry, Avalon, ES 350, IS 350 and IS 250 models as an “extra measure of confidence.”

The system ensures the vehicle will stop if both the brake and accelerator pedals are simultaneously applied.

bpope@wardsauto.com