Runaway Prius Shows Toyota Hasn't Solved Acceleration Problem

On the same day Toyota Motor (TM) officials sought to debunk the theory that its cars' electronics were the source of their sudden unintended acceleration problems, the driver of a Toyota Prius hybrid sedan dialed 911 on Monday to say that his car was speeding uncontrollably down a San Diego-area freeway.

The driver, James Sikes, said he was accelerating to pass another vehicle on Interstate 8 when his Prius suddenly took off on its own.

"I pushed the gas pedal to pass a car and it did something kind of funny ... it jumped and it just stuck there," said Sikes, 61, at a news conference. "As it was going, I was trying the brakes ... it wasn't stopping, it wasn't doing anything and it just kept speeding up," Sikes said, adding that he was pushing down so hard on the pedal, he could smell the brake pads burning.

A California Highway Patrolman was dispatched to help Sikes to slow the vehicle, which had reached speeds of 94 miles an hour. After pulling alongside the Prius, the officer told Sikes over a loudspeaker to push the brake pedal to the floor and apply the emergency brake. After the vehicle's speed dropped to 50 mph, Sikes was able to turn the engine off and coast to a stop. The entire episode lasted about 20 minutes.

Toyota has dispatched a field technician to examine Sikes' car and "offer assistance," according to Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons. The company has repeatedly denied that electronics as a source of unintended acceleration, instead attributing the problem to sticky accelerator mechanisms or to gas pedals getting hung up on bulky floor mats. In an effort to solve the problems, Toyota has recalled some 8.5 million vehicles to trim gas pedals or insert shims to eliminate stickiness. It has also recalled 2010 model year Priuses to correct a computer software problem in their anti-lock braking systems.

Highway Déjà Vu, But This Time, Driver Is Believed

Sikes' experience was eerily similar to the one recounted in testimony Rhonda Smith gave before a House committee last month. In October 2006, Smith was accelerating to merge onto Interstate 40 near her home in Sevierville, Tenn., when the accelerator on her Lexus ES 350 sedan jammed and the car sped uncontrollably down the road, reaching 100 mph.

Through tears, Smith told lawmakers she thought she was going to die. After several miles Smith's Lexus slowed of its own accord and she was able to pull into the median and stop the car, which she then had towed away. But she criticized Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for not taking her claim seriously.

Last August, a California Highway Patrolman and three family members were killed after the rented 2009 Lexus ES 350 sedan he was driving accelerated uncontrollably to about 120 mph on a San Diego freeway and crashed. Relatives of the officer, Mark Saylor, and his family are suing Toyota, blaming the world's largest automaker for their deaths.

Estimates suggest Toyota could face tens of millions of dollars in wrongful death and injury lawsuits. That's on top of the $3 billion or more it could cost the company to settle 89 class-action lawsuits that have already been brought by Toyota owners, who claim massive safety recalls have caused the value of their cars and trucks to plummet. The number of owners claiming lost value is estimated at 6 million or more, according to an Associated Press review of cases, legal precedents and interviews with experts.
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