Runaway Prius driver: ‘I was laying on the brakes but it wasn’t slowing down’


James Sikes bought his Toyota Prius in 2008, and 53,000 miles later the car was driving fine. But on Monday afternoon, when he accelerated to pass another vehicle on Interstate 8 east of San Diego, the car kept going.

“The gas pedal stuck open all the way,” said Sikes, 61, a real estate agent from San Diego.

For 30 miles, Sikes said, he swerved in and out of traffic, narrowly missing a big rig and trying desperately to slow the vehicle down, at one point reaching down with his hand to pull back on the gas pedal. The brakes were useless.

“I was laying on the brakes,” Sikes said, “but it wasn’t slowing down.”

Sikes recounted his ordeal during a news conference held in front of a Toyota dealership Tuesday as a congressional panel investigating unintended acceleration problems with Toyota vehicles said it received another report of a runaway car in San Diego last Friday.

The vehicle involved in that incident, a 2006 Lexus IS 350, is currently awaiting inspection at a dealership in San Diego, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said in a letter that urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate both San Diego incidents.

Separately, NHTSA said it was sending two investigators to San Diego County to probe the Monday incident involving Sikes’ Prius.

“They’re special crash investigators, and they’re going to gather the details from the car and find out what the potential causes of any problems are,” said NHTSA spokeswoman Karen Aldana.

Sudden unintended acceleration has been alleged as the cause of 56 fatal accidents involving Toyotas in the U.S. going back as far as 2004. Toyota has issued about 10 million recall notices worldwide recently to address sudden acceleration, braking and other problems in its vehicles, including Sikes’ Prius.

Sikes said his “nerve-racking” experience ended when a CHP officer, responding to his 911 call, instructed him through a loudspeaker to apply his emergency brake in tandem with the brake pedal. Sikes pressed down, hard. “My bottom wasn’t even on the seat,” he said.

When the Prius, which had reached 90 mph, dropped to about 50 mph, Sikes turned off the engine and coasted to a stop. There was nothing else he could have done to stop the car, Sikes said.

“If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.”

Sikes said he received a recall notice, but when he brought his Prius in for service about three weeks ago, the dealer in El Cajon said his car wasn’t part of the recall.

Toyota of El Cajon, where Sikes said he took his car, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

Brian Lyons, a Toyota spokesman, said dealers were fixing recalled vehicles on a “roll-out” basis and that they had not yet gotten to Prius models.

Toyota has begun its own investigation into what caused the Monday incident, Lyons said.

“Part of our evaluation will be to interview the customer and, in this case the dealer, too,” he said.

By Tuesday morning, Sikes said he had yet to hear from the manufacturer, and that his calls to Toyota’s toll-free number turned up a busy signal.

At the Toyota dealer in El Cajon where he went to pick up a loaner car, Sikes said he was still a little shaken by the incident. A longtime owner of Toyotas, he said the Prius had just received a maintenance check and appeared to be fine.

When the accelerator stuck, he said he weighed all his options. He feared turning the car off in the middle of traffic, expecting the steering wheel to lock. If he shifted into neutral, he worried that it would slip into reverse. The floor mat, he said, wasn’t interfering with the gas pedal.

“It was accelerating out of control. Period,” Sikes said.

Sikes said he had never had a problem with Toyota vehicles. But when his friend showed up this morning to take him to the dealer in a Prius, he hesitated. “It just felt funny,” he said. “I love Toyotas. I will not drive a Prius again.”