Is it possible the “runaway Prius” in California was a hoax or, at the least, driver error? That seems to be the question asked by journalists after the initial investigation of the vehicle by Toyota and NHTSA.
Coverage of Toyota’s recall crisis focuses on doubts that are being raised by Toyota and NHTSA investigators about the case a week ago, in which Prius owner James Sikes reported a case of unintended acceleration on a California highway. ABC World News (3/15, story 3, 2:30, Sawyer) reported on whether it was “all a hoax by the driver or … something real,” noting that yesterday, “Toyota said there are significant inconsistencies between the driver’s story of what happened and what Toyota found in their own investigation.” Toyota would not comment on whether it thought that Sikes was perpetrating a hoax, ABC reports, but the company said that its data indicates that if Sikes’ description of his actions is accurate, the car would have stopped.
The CBS Evening News (3/15, lead story, 3:10, Couric) recalled the “terrifying” 911 call that brought the story to national prominence, noting that Sikes “claimed the accelerator on his Toyota Prius was stuck and his car was speeding close to 100 miles an hour and he couldn’t stop.” However, “Toyota says its investigation found the gas pedal was normal and the braking system should have been able to stop the car.” Moreover, a DOT spokesman “said ‘We have not been able to find anything to explain the incident Mr. Sikes reported.’” Moreover, “The hybrid’s unique self-diagnostic system found [the brakes had] been pressed lightly but repeatedly during Sikes’ drive.” Bob Waltz, Vice President, Product Quality and Service Support, Toyota: “The data that we were able to measure off of the vehicle indicates that the brakes were applied approximately 250 times during that particular ride.” Reynolds: “But Toyota engineers said that had Sikes been standing on the brakes, as he claimed to police, that would have overridden the accelerator and stopped the car.”
NBC Nightly News (3/15, lead story, 3:00, Williams) reported on the story’s impact on Toyota’s already tarnished image for safety and quality. “But then the rumbling started. Was the driver telling the truth?” NBC reports that neither NHTSA nor Toyota were “able to replicate the stuck accelerator. … Toyota says there’s evidence… Sikes lightly rode the brakes off and on 250 times over 30 miles rather than applying constant pressure like he told police. While Sikes version has been questioned, he stood by his story.”
The Los Angeles Times (3/16, Perry, Olivarez-Giles) reports that Toyota says its findings are “‘inconsistent’ with the driver’s account” and that “two days of testing failed to reproduce… Sikes’ reportedly stuck accelerator, leading to a nearly 30-minute ride on Interstate 8 before he could get the car stopped. An examination of Sikes’ car shows that it would have stopped if the driver had stepped aggressively on the brake, said Bob Waltz, the auto company’s vice president of product quality and service support.” Meanwhile, NHTSA, “which has also been examining Sikes’ 2008 Prius, said that testing might not be able to reproduce the incident. ‘We would caution people that our work continues and that we may never know exactly what happened with this car,’ the agency said in a statement.”
From the American Association for Justice news release.