Toyota says tests cast doubts on story of runaway Prius in California

Toyota cast doubt on a California man's claim that his Prius sped out of control, saying the report is inconsistent with the findings of the company's preliminary investigation. (March 15)
By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Toyota on Monday said that extensive testing of the 2008 Prius that allegedly took a Southern California driver on a 30-mile runaway ride last week casts serious doubts on his story.

San Diego resident James Sikes, 61, was the subject of a highly publicized incident on a Southern California freeway March 8. Sikes said his Prius's gas pedal stuck, causing his car to speed to 94 mph. Sikes said he tried to free his gas pedal with his hand but did not say whether he put the car in neutral. He was able to stop the vehicle after calling 911 and receiving instructions from a state trooper who pulled his cruiser alongside the speeding hybrid.

Toyota and federal government investigators swooped in to examine the car. An initial report of the testing emerged Sunday from a congressional committee that said investigators could not duplicate the incident.

Many Toyota drivers who have reported runaway acceleration have said it was a one-time occurrence, and failures do not always repeat. Nevertheless, on Monday, Toyota laid out its evidence against Sikes's claim.

"There are significant inconsistencies between the account of March 8 and the findings of this investigation," Toyota spokesman Mike Michels said. After weeks of public apologies by top-level company officials, Toyota has begun to fight back with engineering evidence to say that its cars are safe.

Michels and other Toyota officials said that Sikes's Prius was subjected to extensive testing at a Toyota dealership in El Cajon, Calif., including the inspection of individual parts and vehicle systems as well as diagnostic testing of the car's on-board computers and data recorder. The front brakes on the Prius were found to be ground down, said Toyota product quality vice president Bob Waltz, so the car was outfitted with new brakes and test-driven several times. It did not experience runaway acceleration.

Michels said that if Sikes had heavily applied the brakes simultaneously with the accelerator, as he said he did, "it would have easily stopped the vehicle."

Testing showed that the car's brakes had been applied about 250 times during the incident, causing the brakes to overheat.

Michels said that Sikes was told by the 911 operator to put his Prius into neutral and turn off the ignition.

Sikes's attorney, John Gomez, declined to comment after Monday's briefing, the Associated Press reported.

On Sunday, he told the AP that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration "has never been able to replicate one of these incidents. Mr. Sikes drove the vehicle for three years without incident. The idea that they couldn't make it happen again really doesn't show anything."

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