— A Toyota Highlander steering column recall may be forthcoming as a federal investigation is upgraded based on complaints about steering wheels falling off while driving.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened the original investigation in May to determine if a recall is required for steering column separations in more than 700,000 model year 2008-2013 Toyota Highlander and Highlander Hybrid SUVs.
Drivers complained about steering wheels that detached when the telescoping/tilt mechanisms were used, but only three complaints had been filed by May 2018. NHTSA now says it's aware of 30 incidents involving the Highlander steering columns.
Fourteen complaints claim the steering columns completely separated, with six of those incidents occurring while driving, resulting in one crash. Another 16 events have been reported where the steering columns dropped from the dashboard mounting brackets, but none of the reports indicate the steering wheels fell off.
According to NHTSA, five of the SUVs apparently had been repaired following collisions that occurred months or years before the steering columns separated.
Safety investigators determined the Highlander and Highlander Hybrid steering columns are equipped with breakaway capsules allegedly used for safety. Toyota says the capsules are designed to collapse and break away in certain frontal collisions, a feature created to reduce injuries to drivers.
However, NHTSA found there is no way for a driver to know when the capsules collapse. This may be an issue because the steering column can drop out of position or detach from the steering assembly if a driver operates the tilt mechanism after the breakaway capsules have collapsed.
Toyota knows about the steering column problems because the automaker recently issued a bulletin specifically for collision repairs, and the automaker also revised the Highlander repair manuals.
NHTSA says it upgraded the investigation to study what kind of conditions cause the breakaway capsules to collapse and shear off. In addition, safety regulators want to know details about detecting and repairing the capsules.
CarComplaints.com will update our website if NHTSA determines a Toyota Highlander steering column recall is in order.
Read what drivers say about their Highlander SUVs: