James Sikes, a 61-year-old San Diego-based real estate executive, made national news this week when he claimed that his 2008 Toyota Prius sped out of control on California’s Interstate 8. Sikes said, “I pushed the gas pedal to pass a car and it did something kind of funny…it jumped and it just stuck there.” Speaking at a news conference yesterday, Sikes said, “I was trying the brakes…it wasn’t stopping, it wasn’t doing anything and it just kept speeding up.” The story was picked up by major national media and ricocheted around the Internet.
According to Sikes, he was unable to shift into neutral, power down the car, or apply the parking brake—but but he did manage to call 911. Whle Sikes was on the call, which lasted 23 minutes, a California Highway Patrolman raced to the side of the speeding car. The patrolman used a loudspeaker to advise Sikes to apply the parking brake and foot brake simultaneously, and thereby successfully bring the car to a stop. There are conflicting reports about whether or not Sikes tried to put the Prius into neutral during the early part of the incident.
Runaway News Reports
A local television news report misreported that the patrolman used “his own police cruiser as a brake.” CNN reported that the main “claimed that he almost flew over a hill at more than 90 miles per hour in his Prius.”
There were other mistakes in national media coverage, including the report that the Sikes incident caused Toyota to issue a new recall for 2004 – 2009 Toyota Priuses. Those vehicles were included in a late 2009 voluntary safety recall—related to accelerator pedals that could be trapped by floor mats. There have been reports that some Toyota vehicles that received service in a separate recall are still experiencing problems, but second-generation Priuses, such as Sikes’s, have not yet been called into dealerships. Nonetheless, Sikes claims that he was turned away from a Toyota dealership when he tried to get the Prius serviced as part of a recall.
The 2010 model year Prius was recalled—but for software issues related to “brake feel,” not acceleration issues.
James Sikes was identified in a 2006 newspaper story as a longtime lottery player who won $55,000 and auditioned to appear on a California Lottery TV game show. Another unconfirmed report indicates that Sikes filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2008, and faced federal and state tax liens.
Sikes’s wife, Patty, said Tuesday the family’s Prius appeared to have a brief accelerator malfunction a few weeks ago. “It took off for a second, and then it just stopped. It was like a little hiccup or something,” she said.
Bad Timing for Toyota
Regardless of the facts, dramatic images of yet another Toyota car involved in a runaway further undermines trust in the company’s products. The incident occurred only hours after Toyota completed a presentation intended to demonstrate that the electronics in its cars couldn’t be the cause of unwanted acceleration.
Toyota issued a press release on Tuesday to correct a Wall Street Journal report, which indicated that a new Prius recall was issued. According to the release, “There is no new recall being planned for the Prius to address this issue. To be clear, the 2004-2009 Prius was part of Toyota’s November 2, 2009 announcement of a voluntary safety recall campaign to address floor mat entrapment in certain Toyota and Lexus vehicles.”
On Monday, Toyota released a statement saying it had “dispatched a field technical specialist to San Diego to investigate the report and offer assistance.” The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also said it will examine the Prius. “An investigator is flying out to California to examine the car and look for potential causes,” Transportation Department spokeswoman Olivia Alair said on Tuesday.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has received about 50 complaints of runaway acceleration on the model Prius involved in the latest incident. More than 800,000 Priuses have been sold in the United States, since the hybrid went on the market in 2000.
As the story rippled throughout the Internet, web readers repeatedly expressed doubts about the veracity of Sikes’s story— many suggesting that he is an opportunist looking to take advantage of Toyota’s safety issues, others pointing to driver error as the root problem.