Tragedy averted but Toyota suffers another huge dent

BEFORE he called the emergency services, James Sikes says he reached down with his hand to loosen the “stuck” accelerator on his 2008 Toyota Prius, his other hand on the steering wheel. The pedal didn’t move.

“My car can’t slow down,” he began when a California Highway Patrol (CHP) dispatcher answered his 911 call.

Sikes, 61, rolled to a stop 23 harrowing minutes later, he and his blue Prius emerging unscathed but Toyota suffering another big dent.

Tragedy was only averted after officers using a loudspeaker talked Sikes through the process of slowing down by using his emergency brake and then turning off the engine.

Toyota has watched its reputation for quality crumble with recalls tied to risks that cars can accelerate uncontrollably or can’t brake properly.

Todd Neibert, the officer who gave instructions to Sikes as they went east on mountainous Interstate 8 in San Diego County, said he smelled burning brakes when he caught the Prius.

He said he told Sikes to push the brake pedal to the floor and apply the emergency brakes as the Prius neared 85mph. The car slowed to about 55mph, at which time Sikes says he turned off the ignition and the car came to a stop.

“The brakes were definitely down to hardly any material,” Neibert told reporters. “There was a bunch of brake material on the ground and inside the wheels.”

He found the floor mat properly placed and the accelerator and brake pedals in correct position.

The freeway incident happened at the worst possible time for Toyota – just hours after it invited reporters to hear experts insist that electronic flaws could not cause cars to speed out of control under real driving conditions.

Another driver in suburban New York told police this week that her 2005 Toyota Prius accelerated on its own, then lurched down a driveway, across a road and into a stone wall.

The 56-year-old woman escaped serious injury. Police said the floor mat did not appear to be a factor; Toyota said it’s not yet known whether the company will investigate.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has sent two investigators to examine Sikes’ car.

Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons said the car maker is sending three of its own technicians to investigate, and the firm also wished to talk to the driver.

Sikes’ car was covered by Toyota’s floor mat recall, but the driver said the pedal jammed and was not trapped under the mat.

Sikes, a real estate agent, said he was passing another car when the accelerator stuck and eventually reached 94mph.

During two 911 calls, Sikes ignored many of the dispatcher’s questions, saying later he had to put his phone on the seat to keep his hands on the wheel.

At one stage, Neibert told him to apply both brakes. Sikes said he lifted from the seat to press the floor brake.

The cars manoeuvred around two trucks going uphill to a “clear, wide-open road,” Neibert said. The officer had only about 15 miles to stop the car before a steep downgrade and was considering spike strips to puncture the tires as a last resort.

Toyota has recalled 8.5 million vehicles worldwide because of acceleration problems in multiple models and braking issues in the Prius. Regulators have linked 52 deaths to crashes allegedly caused by accelerator problems.

There have since been more than 60 reports of sudden acceleration in cars fixed under the recall.

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