When we test drove the Toyota Prius last year, our experience was great. It was a comfortable ride with plenty of room and received industry leading gas mileage at 50+ mpg. In addition, customer satisfaction with the top-selling vehicle is the highest among all hybrids in many studies.
Unfortunately, some of the Prius hybrids — at least older models – appear to have a couple of issues including braking glitches and an ugly acceleration problem. Those problems are the latest in a long string of safety issues that have stricken Toyota’s lineup.
That problem on Monday led to an alarming close-call on the southern part of California’s interstate highway, Interstate 8. Driving just outside San Diego, Jim Sikes, tried to pass a slow-moving vehicle in his 2008 Toyota Prius. To his shock, when he let off the gas the vehicle didn’t slow down — it instead sped up.
The car then proceeded to take him on a wild ride down the sunny highways of the Golden State. He recalls, “I pushed the gas pedal to pass a car, and it just did something kind of funny … and it just stuck there. As I was going, I was trying the brakes … and it just kept speeding up.”
He called 911 and the operator tried to give him directions to stop the vehicle. He even tried to pull the accelerator physically upwards, but it “stayed right where it was” (it is unclear whether Mr. Sikes or the operator tried the logical approach of shifting the car into Neutral, which should disengage the engine).
Unable to figure out a way to stop or slow down the car, the Californian Highway Patrol was enlisted to help the speeding motorist. They caught up to him as his Prius hurdled down twisting mountain roads at 90 mph. They communicated with Sikes to attempt to brake and apply the emergency brake and the same time. That combination apparently worked, bringing the perilous ride to its conclusion.
As the car slowed to 50 mph, Sikes was able to shut off the engine and the car rolled to a stop. The highway patrol cop, Todd Neibert, then maneuvered his cruiser in front of the rebellious Prius, just in case it decided to go for another joy ride (though that seems pretty unlikely given that it would have to somehow restart the engine).
Toyota has blamed the Prius’s problems on defective floor mats. However, Sikes’ mat seemed perfectly fine and stayed in place. He comments, “My mat was perfect. There was nothing wrong with my mat.”
Sikes had taken his Prius in for service at a Toyota dealership two weeks prior to the incident. This follows the theory held by some that the acceleration is the result of misservice to the vehicle’s electrical systems during repairs.
California Highway Patrol spokesman Brian Pennings says he’s just glad everyone survived the ordeal. He comments, “We are extremely thankful that there was a safe end to this.”
A Toyota spokesperson says an investigation of the incident is pending. They commented, “Toyota has dispatched a field technical specialist to San Diego to investigate the report and offer assistance.”
Toyota is under fire from Congress for reportedly covering up some of the early data indicating certain models had safety issues, including uncontrolled acceleration.
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