Inspectors from Toyota and NHTSA descend upon San Diego to examine runaway Prius

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 10, 2010; A15

Toyota's run of troubles and terrible timing continues.

On the same day that the automaker launched a counterattack against the assertion that electronics may be at the heart of its runaway-acceleration problem, a Toyota Prius with an apparently stuck gas pedal took its driver on a 30-mile wild ride on an interstate not far from Toyota's U.S. headquarters in Southern California.

Outside of San Diego on Monday, James Sikes found himself behind the wheel of his blue Toyota 2008 Prius hybrid with what he said later was a stuck accelerator. In an interview with ABC News after the incident, from which he emerged safely, Sikes said his Prius sped up to 94 mph on its own.

Sikes said he looked to see if the floor mat was interfering with his gas pedal, but it was not. He said that he tried to pull the gas pedal back with his hand, but to no avail.

He then called 911 for help. A state trooper drove alongside him shortly afterward on Interstate 8 and, through the cruiser's external speaker, instructed Sikes to shift the car into neutral, apply the brakes and the parking brake. The trooper said after the incident that he could smell the Prius's brakes burning, even at that high speed.

After applying both brakes and repeatedly pushing the Prius's ignition switch -- it has a button, not a keyed ignition -- Sikes was able to cut power to the runaway car and roll to a stop on the side of the interstate. Pressing and holding a Prius's ignition button for a few seconds should turn off the car.

Toyota released a statement Monday night saying it had "dispatched a field technical specialist to San Diego to investigate the report and offer assistance." The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also said it will examine the Prius.

"An investigator is flying out to California to examine the car and look for potential causes," Transportation Department spokeswoman Olivia Alair said on Tuesday.

The NHTSA has received about 50 complaints of runaway acceleration on that model Prius.

Toyota issued a recall for possible floor-mat entrapment of the gas pedal in the 2008 Prius, but not for a sticky gas pedal, the subject of a later recall of other Toyotas.

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