Prius Driver Error Caused Crash, Say Suburban New York Police

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Driver error, not a stuck gas pedal, was the reason a 2005 Toyota Prius hybrid sedan struck a stone wall in suburban New York City this month, local investigators said Monday.

Information downloaded from the vehicle's "black box" led police in Harrison, N.Y., to conclude that the 56-year-old housekeeper driving the car had the accelerator fully depressed when she struck the wall, and that the pedal returned to its default position after impact.

"The data is black and white," Capt. Anthony Marraccini, Harrison acting chief, said during an afternoon press conference with Wade A. Hoyt, a spokesman for Toyota Motor's (TM) U.S.-based sales arm, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. There was no indication that the brakes had been applied, Marraccini said, adding that no charges will be filed against the driver, because she hadn't tried to deceive police.

Monday marked the first public identification of the driver, Ohio resident Gloria Rosel. In addition to local officials, the March 9 accident also involved six investigators from Toyota and two from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In a brief statement, Toyota said it "sympathizes with the individuals and families involved in any accident involving our vehicles," and noted that the company and its dealers are making "substantial" progress toward completing recalls of vehicles for unintended acceleration.

Those repairs, which involve some 8.5 million cars worldwide, include trimming gas pedals to prevent them from snagging on heavy rubber mats, and installing shims on pedal assemblies that feel "sticky." Toyota has repeatedly denied that electronics may be at the source of unintended acceleration, which federal regulators blame for more than 50 deaths of passengers in Toyota cars.

But Toyota also said the NHTSA database lacks sufficient detail "that could help identify the cause of an accident or, in some cases, even the specific vehicle involved." Further, the company said instances of unintended acceleration can be caused by many factors, nearly all attributable to driver error or unfamiliarity with the vehicle.

Toyota's comments were far less critical than those it issued last week in discrediting the story given by James Sikes, the 61-year-old California man who, one day before Rosel crashed her Prius, said that his 2008 Prius sped uncontrollably down a San Diego–area Freeway, reaching speed in excess of 90 miles an hour. "There are strong indications that the driver's account of the event is inconsistent with the findings of the preliminary analysis," said Toyota spokesman Mike Michels, at the time.

Last week, officials from NHTSA cast doubt on Rosel's story, saying in a brief statement that information pulled from the car's black box and examined by federal investigators led the agency to conclude that she had failed to apply the brakes. That drew the ire of Marraccini, who said that releasing the contents of the computer data prior to consultation with Harrison Police Department compromised the integrity of the investigation.
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