High-profile media reports of runaway cars give the impression that the Toyota Prius is unsafe and undependable. However, the hard data tells a different story. J.D. Power—the auto industry’s top source for information about vehicle dependability—yesterday reported that among compact cars, the Toyota Prius had the fewest numbers of problems experienced per 100 vehicles over the past three years.

Toyota Prius Shipment

This marks the third year in a row that Prius took the top spot in the study.

The study, which measures problems experienced by original owners of three-year-old (2007 model year) vehicles, includes 198 different problem symptoms across all areas of the vehicle. The 2010 Vehicle Dependability Study is based on responses from more than 52,000 original owners of 2007 model-year vehicles. The study was fielded between October and December 2009—prior the most publicized reports of Prius unintended acceleration.

The negative impact of recalls on perceptions of dependability apparently did not affect the Toyota Prius in J.D. Power’s 2010 study. Complaints to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) by car owners commonly increase after automakers announce plans for recalls. Lars Perner, professor of clinical marketing at the University of Southern California, told Associated Press, “When people expect problems, they’re more likely to find them.”

Human Error?

It remains to be seen how the negative publicity will influence next year’s study. But there’s mounting evidence that the most publicized Prius accidents involving unintended acceleration were caused by human error—not bad brakes or acceleration pedals. “Information retrieved from the vehicle’s onboard computer systems indicated there was no application of the brakes and the throttle was fully open,” NHTSA said Thursday in a statement about a Harrison, N.Y., crash. NHTSA officials said the findings mean the accident was caused by the driver, most likely because she pressed the accelerator instead of the brake.

Toyota’s investigation of the March 8 incident, in which 61-year-old James Sikes claimed his 2008 Prius reached speeds of more than 90 miles an hour on its own on a San Diego freeway, found no evidence to back up the claim. The investigation showed the brakes and accelerator had been applied more than 250 times. Toyota said its investigation resulted in findings “inconsistent” with the driver’s account. The company is also trying to discredit a report by ABC News, in which a professor demonstrated how a Toyota vehicle could speed out of control. It was later revealed that the report used incorrect staged footage and that the professor was being paid by a consultant to lawyers who are suing Toyota.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has also been examining Sikes’s 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.

Public Perception

Sales of the 2010 Toyota Prius fell by 6 percent in February compared to the previous month—but were up by about 10 percent compared to one year ago.

Future sales trends will be determined by how well consumers are able to distinguish between sensational reports of isolated accidents—regardless of their cause—versus detailed analysis of the experiences of tens of thousands of owners over a multi-year period.