Japanese car manufacturer Toyota has come under increasing scrutiny after the latest incident involving possible system malfunction, where the accelerator of a Prius hybrid hatchback jammed on an interstate highway in California causing it to race out of control at 94 miles an hour.
In a 911 emergency call made by driver Jim Sikes on Monday, he could be heard saying "My car won't slow down… My accelerator is stuck… I tried pulling it back… but it's stuck." The operator could then be heard telling Sikes to check his floor mats were not in the way, to try shifting the gear into neutral and to press the brakes for five seconds.
When all the measures failed, Sikes could be heard panicking, saying, "I can't hold the… phone, forget the [expletive] phone.”, then adding “The brakes are smelling”. Finally after careening dangerously close to several large trucks Sikes managed to slow to a halt using the car’s brakes and emergency brake, with the assistance of a Highway Patrol officer.
The 2008 Prius model, such as the one owned by Sikes, is covered by the November 2009 voluntary recall by Toyota to address the risk that out-of-position floor mats could jam accelerator pedals. However on Tuesday Toyota said that “no new recall was being planned” for the problem of “floor mat entrapment of accelerator pedals.”
Offering clarification on the recalls a Toyota press release said that the remedy process for these vehicles began at the end of 2009 and is occurring on a rolling schedule during 2010. “Owners of the involved vehicles that have not yet been remedied are asked to take out any removable driver’s side floor mat and not replace it with any other floor mat.”, the release added.
On Wednesday yet another incident involving a 2005 Toyota Prius was reported in the New York city suburb of Harrison. According to reports air bags deployed when the car accelerated on its own, then lurched down a driveway, across a road and into a stone wall, toppling boulders. The driver, a 56-year-old woman, escaped serious injury, the Harrison police said.
Recent weeks have seen Toyota’s legal woes mounting rapidly as car owners claiming that the safety recalls caused the value of their vehicles to plummet have filed numerous class-action lawsuits across the United States. By some estimates these lawsuits could amount to $3 billion or more, not including settlements for individual cases of wrongful death or gross negligence, which are estimated to run into tens of millions of dollars.
According to reports a key decision is expected on March 25 where federal judges will “consider whether to consolidate the mushrooming cases into a single jurisdiction”. Such consolidation could lead to a decision that all claims filed by Toyota owners may be combined into a "certifying a class". There may also be a judgement on whether the claims have enough merit to move toward either trial or settlement, it was reported.
To date Toyota has recalled close to 8.5 million vehicles, of which over 6 million were in the U.S. Toyota President Akio Toyoda last month repeatedly apologised during his appearance before the Congress, saying that great strides were being taken by his company to put "safety first".