Demon Prius

I thought the Toyota Prius was a safe, nerdy car driven by responsible citizens who want to end global warming. But a 24-mile freeway ride by a San Diegan named James Sikes has turned the Prius into a steel death trap ruled by mechanical phantoms.

In case you hadn’t heard, Sikes claims his 2008 Prius took off on its own one day, accelerating out of control as Sikes desperately jammed on the brakes. He says brakes didn’t work and he finally stopped after a state cop pulled alongside him, while traveling over 90 mph, and told Sikes to depress the brake and parking brake simultaneously. Sikes later said he was afraid to put the car into neutral or turn off the engine, despite being told repeatedly to do it by the cop and a 911 dispatcher.

Soon after the event, Toyota staged a theatrical press conference in a football stadium parking lot where they said Sikes’s story appeared to be hogwash. They tested the car and the brakes were fine. Shifting into neutral worked fine. Depressing the brake and accelerator together engaged an override system that shut off the engine, and there was nothing wrong with the car’s electronics or computer software.

You’d expect Toyota to say all that. But the National Highway Safety Administration has basically said the same thing. I know a little bit about this story after covering it for public radio. Besides, I drive a Prius too.

Sikes’s story became international in scope because of the Toyota floor-mat scandal and millions of recalls of Toyota vehicles. But the inability of Toyota or the feds to reproduce his harrowing expedition has led to many theories about what really happened. Some people think Sikes, a bankrupt realtor, was faking it in order to sue Toyota. Some people think he was just stupid. Some believe Toyota is denying the facts as they play defense in the face of multiple lawsuits.

What people think happened that day, on Interstate 8, says a lot more about them than it says about James Sikes and what did or did not happen to him.

It’s very hard to listen to the 911 tape of Sikes (I have heard it) and not believe he was really scared. If he faked it, he’s an outstanding actor. Yet the fear of Toyota in the general public seems entirely out of touch with reality. The fatal crash last August of a Lexus in San Diego, due to an accelerator stuck on a floor mat, put Toyota under a microscope.

That kind of examination reveals lots of problems, even ones that don’t exist. Suddenly, nearly every report of unexplained acceleration in a car involved a Toyota. That’s wasn’t the case before the Lexus crash.

I don’t know what was going on with James Sikes’s car and we may never know. Lately, I have practiced putting my Prius into neutral. The shifter acts kind of funny and yes, it does take a little bit of practice. There is a great irony that a Prius was the car accused of dangerous acceleration because it is such a nanny car. When you fail to buckle your seat belt the dashboard beeps at you then starts beeping double-time if you ignore it.

Maybe it’s a good thing that we have too many lawyers, ready to sue if a car maker messes up. But if James Sikes sues, it will definitely be time to wonder whether he’s a better actor than I imagined.

PS   Listen to an interview of me on this subject that aired on KPBS, March 17th.

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2 Comments on “Demon Prius”

  1. Jim Fudge Says:

    Irene and I have Avalon that also has floor mats and with a small “hook” on the drivers side exactly under one’s position at the wheel. Whenever I failed to place the hook into the mat, the mat moved forward to encumber the accelerator. If the hook is in place the mat is held firmly in place removing any chance for it to slide about. What about any electronic problem? No one seems to know. At this point I would happily buy a Prius.

  2. Jerral Miles Says:

    Who knows what to believe! These days (in San Diego and elsewhere) are filled with stories told as true accounts that may or may not have actually happened. It is possible, but not likely, that Sikes Prius malfunctioned on that one occasion that hasn’t been replicated since… even by experts. I like your good, old-fashioned journalistic objectivity…

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