Feds to probe cause of runaway Prius in California
Associated Press Writer
EL CAJON, Calif (AP) – The government sent investigators Tuesday to examine a Prius that sped out of control on a California freeway, and Toyota said it wanted to interview the driver as the besieged automaker dealt with a high-profile new headache that raised questions about the safety of its beloved hybrid.
A day after state troopers helped the car slow to a stop and its driver to emerge unharmed, Toyota could shed no new light on what might have gone wrong. The Prius is not part of Toyota’s vast recall of gas pedals that can become stuck, but it is covered by an earlier recall of floor mats that can catch the accelerator.
The freeway incident happened at the worst possible time for Toyota – just hours after it invited reporters Monday to hear experts insist that electronic flaws could not cause cars to speed out of control under real driving conditions.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sent two investigators to examine the car, a government spokeswoman said. Toyota Motor Corp. spokesman Brian Lyons said the automaker is sending three of its own technicians to investigate.
Another Toyota spokesman, John Hanson, said the company wanted to talk to the driver, James Sikes.
His car, a 2008 model, was covered by the floor mat recall, but the driver in Monday’s incident said the pedal jammed and was not trapped under the mat.
Sikes told authorities he was driving on Interstate 8 outside San Diego when the accelerator became stuck. He said the car reached 94 mph before a trooper, calling out instructions from a megaphone, helped him slow down and turn off the engine.
A pair of 911 calls spanning 23 minutes recounted the harrowing experience. In the audio released Tuesday, Sikes sounds panicked at times as he tells a dispatcher about a stuck accelerator. The dispatcher, Leighann Parks, repeatedly tells Sikes to throw the car into neutral and turn off the ignition. Sikes often didn’t respond to her instructions.
“My car can’t slow down,” Sikes tells her. At one point, Parks asks if he had put the car into neutral, and Sikes responds, “I’m trying to control the car!”
Sikes, 61, was identified in a 2006 newspaper story as a real estate executive and longtime lottery player who won $55,000 and was selected to appear on a California Lottery TV game show.
He appeared at a news conference quickly after the freeway incident Monday and also spoke to reporters Tuesday at his Toyota dealership, where his car was towed.
Sikes said he called 911 about 1:30 p.m. Monday after accelerating to pass another car.
“I pushed the gas pedal to pass a car and it did something kind of funny. … It jumped and it just stuck there,” he said.
Sikes said he tried to pull on the gas pedal but it didn’t “move at all.” He said he nearly hit the back of a big-rig and was traveling so fast he couldn’t read the numbers on freeway call boxes.
A patrol car driven by CHP Officer Todd Neibert pulled alongside the Prius, and the officer told Sikes over a loudspeaker to push the brake pedal to the floor and apply the emergency brake.
The braking, coupled with a steep incline on the freeway, slowed the car to about 50 mph. Sikes said he then shut off the engine and the car coasted to a stop. Neibert then moved his car in front of the Prius to block it.
“It started to slow down, it was still revving up, but it was slowing down,” Sikes said Tuesday. “I hit the button to turn the car off at about 55 mph. It did shut down.”
Neibert said he considered deploying a spike strip as a last resort and was glad Sikes was able to stop the car before a steep downhill that was approaching.
“He was visibly shaken, he seemed in shock,” Neibert said. “The brakes were definitely down to hardly any material.”
The CHP held the car overnight, and it was towed to the dealership Tuesday, CHP Officer Brian Pennings said.
“There’s no collision, so our investigation’s done,” Pennings said. “There’s no crime. … We’re just glad it ended safely.”
Toyota has watched its reputation for quality crumble because of recalls tied to risks that cars can accelerate uncontrollably or can’t brake properly. The company is defending itself against suggestions that bad electronics are to blame for the problem – not simpler mechanical flaws, as Toyota maintains.
The runaway Prius only makes Toyota’s image problem worse, said Larry L. Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management in Louisville, Ky. – even if video only showed the aftermath, with the Prius resting behind the patrol car.
“People are going to see this video and assume they’ve seen the car out of control,” he said. “They really haven’t seen the car out of control. It doesn’t matter if they think they did. It’s planted in their heads. That part of the damage is done.”
The Sikes family received a recall notice and took the Prius to Toyota of El Cajon about two weeks ago, but the dealership refused to examine the car, saying it was not on the recall list, said Sikes’ wife, Patty.
The dealership declined to comment and referred requests for comment to Toyota’s corporate representatives.
Hanson said Toyota first sends a preliminary notice to owners saying their vehicles are subject to a recall. A second notice comes later detailing how and where the vehicle can be fixed.
“I believe what could have happened is Mr. Sikes could have received his preliminary notification which says, ‘Hello, your car is going to be recalled, and we will notify you when to bring it in.”‘
A deadly crash last year about 12 miles from where Sikes’ Prius started speeding first sparked scrutiny into Toyota cars and trucks.
CHP Officer Mark Saylor, his wife, her brother and the couple’s daughter died after the accelerator in their Lexus became trapped by a wrong-size floor mat on a freeway in La Mesa. The loaner car hit a sport utility vehicle and burst into flames.
Since then, Toyota has recalled some 8.5 million vehicles worldwide – more than 6 million in the United States – because of acceleration problems in multiple models and braking issues in the Prius. Regulators have linked 52 deaths to crashes allegedly caused by accelerator problems. Still, there have been more than 60 reports of sudden acceleration in cars that have been fixed under the recall.
John Heywood, director of the Sloan Automotive Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said it was difficult glean any larger insight into Toyota’s problems based on a single incident.
“They’re not happening all the time they’re happening rarely, so sorting out what the cause is a very challenging task,” he said.
Associated Press writers Stephen Manning in Washington, D.C., and Greg Risling in Los Angeles, and AP Auto Writer Dan Strumpf in New York contributed to this report.