Runaway Prius Story: Fact, Fraud or Media-Induced Delusion?

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Some consumer psychology experts have raised an interesting point about the recent spate of uncontrolled acceleration issues reported in Toyota (TM) vehicles: When people constantly hear about such problems in the news media, anything unusual can make them think their cars are malfunctioning. It's a type of mass delusion brought on by fear and overactive imaginations. "When people expect problems, they're more likely to find them," said Lars Perner, professor of clinical marketing at the University of Southern California, in an Associated Pressarticle.

"The brakes were discolored and showed wear, but the pattern of friction suggested the driver had intermittently applied moderate pressure on the brakes," The Wall Street Journalreports, citing three unnamed sources familiar with the investigation. The newspaper says that the final report on the investigation is likely to cast doubt on the Sikes' account.

The car's driver may have have had severe financial problems, Fox News reported. The network said "Sikes filed for bankruptcy in San Diego in 2008. According to documents, he was more than $700,000 in debt."

According to USA Today, Sikes' 2008 bankruptcy court records list the Prius as a leased vehicle: He "owes" Toyota the value of the car, but only because it has to be returned at the end of the lease period, which is only a few months away. USA Today also says that Sikes was current on his payments for the Prius.

Toyota clearly is responsible for the defects in the over 8 million cars it has recalled for accelerator problems, as well as the Prius brake problems for which it issued additional recalls. Still, federal regulators, local law enforcement officials and Toyota engineers are likely to look at some of these malfunction claims with an extra bit of skepticism. And that may bring Toyota a measure of the public sympathy that the automaker will require to repair its brand.
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