Officials cast doubt on claim about Prius accelerator problem


Toyota officials on Monday cast doubt on a real estate agent’s claim that his Prius accelerated out of control on Interstate 8 in eastern San Diego County last week, claiming the driver’s account of what happened is inconsistent with the automaker’s initial tests on the vehicle.

Speaking at a news conference in San Diego, Toyota officials stopped short of accusing James Sikes, 61, of fabricating his story, but said repeatedly there were disparities in his explanation of what happened and the company’s diagnostic tests.

“While our analysis is not finalized, Toyota believes there are significant inconsistencies between the account of the event of March 8 and the findings of this investigation,” said Mike Michels, Toyota U.S.A’s vice president of external communications.

John Gomez, Sikes’ attorney, issued a statement declining to comment until a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation has been concluded.

“Neither John Gomez nor the Gomez Law Firm will be making any further comment regarding the NHTSA investigation of the recent incident involving Mr. Sikes and his Toyota Prius until that investigation is complete,” the statement read.

Sikes said his Toyota sped out of control last Monday on Interstate 8. He said he tried in vain to slow down, then made a 911 call after the Prius reached speeds topping 90 mph.

California Highway Patrol personnel caught up with the blue car near Kitchen Creek Road, and one officer pulled up alongside and used his loudspeaker to talk Sikes through the process of slowing down by using his emergency brake and then turning off the engine.

Michels disputed early reports that the officer’s patrol car was used to physically stop the Prius, saying the “vehicle came to a stop on its own.”

Among the other findings released by the company, the Prius’ accelerator pedal was tested and found to be working normally with no mechanical binding or friction. The company also noted that Sikes’ Prius was not subject to any of the company’s recalls.

Toyota also determined that the front brakes showed severe wear and damage from overheating, while the rear brakes and parking brake were in good condition and functional.

Michels said that according to the company’s preliminary findings, Sikes should have been able to stop the vehicle. Toyota officials noted that the brakes were apparently lightly applied, causing them to overheat.

The company also contends that even when the brakes are overheated, the vehicle could have been safely stopped by using the brake pedal.

Michels said the Prius is also equipped with an override “self-protective” system that cuts power to the engine if the accelerator and brake are pressed simultaneously.

“If moderate brake force is applied at the same time that the accelerator pedal is depressed, roughly more than halfway, the hybrid system engine is cut off. Fuel is cut off to the gasoline engine,” he said.

He said the self-protective system was tested and “found to be working as designed and would have easily stopped the vehicle.”

The examination and test of Sikes’ Prius was performed by Toyota engineers and technicians on Wednesday and Thursday of last week at Toyota of El Cajon.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, who recently held a congressional hearing on Toyota recalls, has expressed skepticism about Sikes’ story. A representative from Issa’s office was on hand during the inspection.

“It doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but let’s understand, it doesn’t mean it did happen,” Issa said on CBS’ “The Early Show.”

In a statement, Issa noted that the investigation is not about one incident.

“There are dozens of reports of unintended acceleration still outstanding and we expect both NHTSA and Toyota to investigate those reports with the same transparency and diligence as they have in the case of the Prius,” Issa said.

In recent weeks, Toyota, has recalled millions of vehicles and halted production of some models due to concerns about unintended acceleration.

Michels said since the recent publicity regarding Toyota recalls, “claims of unintended acceleration have inexplicably skyrocketed.”

“This is an issue of complex and great importance,” Michels said. “But rushing to judgment in the absence of facts and balance does the public a disservice.”

“To say this incident was sensationalized would be an enormous understatement,” he said. “Jumping to conclusions is dangerous and investigations should be allowed to (be completed).”

In August, off-duty CHP Officer Mark Saylor was killed in eastern San Diego County along with his wife, her brother and the Saylor’s 13-year-old daughter after the accelerator of the Lexus ES350 they were in got stuck. Sheriff’s investigators determined that the deadly crash was caused by a sticking gas pedal trapped by an improperly installed floor mat.