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Updated: March 10, 2010 18:05 IST

Runaway Prius driver: Brakes were ‘almost burned’

AP
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Driver James Sikes talks about his experiences in his Toyota Prius during a news conference held at Toyota of El Cajon on Tuesday, in El Cajon, Calif. Photo: AP.
Driver James Sikes talks about his experiences in his Toyota Prius during a news conference held at Toyota of El Cajon on Tuesday, in El Cajon, Calif. Photo: AP.

Before he called emergency dispatchers, 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 dispatcher answered his call.

Mr. Sikes, 61, rolled to a stop 23 harrowing minutes later, he and his blue Prius emerging unscathed but Toyota Motor Corp. suffering another big dent. 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 highway officer who gave instructions to Mr. Sikes over a loudspeaker as they went east on a mountainous highway near San Diego on Monday afternoon, said he smelled burning brakes when he caught up with the Prius.

The officer said he told Mr. Sikes to push the brake pedal to the floor and apply the emergency brakes as the Prius neared 85 mph (137 kph). The car slowed to about 55 mph (88 kph), at which time Mr. Sikes says he turned off the ignition and the car came to a stop.

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

The officer found the floor mat properly placed and the accelerator and brake pedals in correct resting 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.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has sent two investigators to examine the car. Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons, said the automaker is sending three of its own technicians to investigate.

Another Toyota spokesman, John Hanson, said the company wanted to talk to the driver.

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

Mr. Sikes, a real estate agent, said he was passing another car when the accelerator stuck and eventually reached 94 mph (151 kph).

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

Leighann Parks, a 24-year-old dispatcher, repeatedly told him to throw the car into neutral but got no answers.

“He was very emotional, you could tell on the line he was panicked,” Mr. Parks told reporters outside the CHP’s El Cajon office. “I could only imagine being in his shoes and being that stressed.”

Mr. Neibert told Mr. Sikes after the highway patrol caught up with him to shift to neutral but the driver shook his head no. Mr. Sikes told reporters he didn’t go into neutral because he worried the car would flip.

The driver rolled down the window and Mr. Neibert told him to apply both brakes. Mr. Sikes said he lifted his buttocks from the seat to press the floor brake, an account backed by the officer.

The cars manoeuvered around two trucks going uphill to a “clear, wide—open road,” Mr. Neibert said. The officer had only about 15 miles (24 kilometers) to stop the vehicle before a steep downgrade and was considering spike strips to puncture the tires as a last resort.

In the final minutes of the call, Mr. Sikes tells the dispatcher, “My brakes are almost burned out.”

After the car stops, Mr. Sikes sighs with relief.

Mr. Neibert, a 14—year CHP veteran, worked with Officer Mark Saylor, who was killed in August along with his wife, her brother and the couple’s daughter after their Lexus’ accelerator became trapped by a wrong—size floor mat on a freeway in nearby La Mesa. The loaner car hit a sport utility vehicle and burst into flames.

Toyota has since recalled some 8.5 million vehicles worldwide - more than 6 million in the United States - 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. Still, there have been more than 60 reports of sudden acceleration in cars that have been fixed under the recall.

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