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Published: Wednesday, 3/10/2010

California driver says Prius refused to stop for 30 high-speed miles


EL CAJON, Calif. - 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 I-8 east of San Diego, the car kept going.

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

For 30 miles, Mr. Sikes said, he swerved in and out of traffic, narrowly missing a big truck and trying desperately to slow the vehicle, at one point reaching down with his hand to pull back on the gas pedal. He said he looked to see if the floor mat was interfering with his gas pedal, but it was not. The brakes were useless.

"I was laying on the brakes," Mr. Sikes said, "but it wasn't slowing down."

Mr. Sikes said the car reached 94 mph.

His "nerve-wracking" experience ended, he said, when California Highway Patrol Officer Todd Niebert, responding to his 911 call, pulled alongside him and instructed him through a loudspeaker to apply his emergency brake in tandem with the brake pedal. Mr. Sikes pressed down hard. "My bottom wasn't even on the seat," he said.

The braking, coupled with a steep incline on the freeway, slowed the car to about 50 mph. Mr. Sikes turned off the engine and coasted to a stop.

The freeway incident happened at the worst possible time for Toyota - just hours after it invited reporters Monday to hear experts insist that electronic flaws could not cause cars to speed out of control under real driving conditions.

A highway patrol officer helped James Sikes stop his Prius. Mr. Sikes said he had taken the car to a dealer after getting a recall notice but had been turned away. A highway patrol officer helped James Sikes stop his Prius. Mr. Sikes said he had taken the car to a dealer after getting a recall notice but had been turned away.

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

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

The Prius is not part of Toyota's vast recall of gas pedals that can become stuck, but it is covered by an earlier recall of floor mats that can catch the accelerator.

Mr. Sikes said he called 911 about 1:30 p.m. Monday after accelerating to pass another car. "I pushed the gas pedal to pass a car, and it did something kind of funny. … It jumped and it just stuck there," he said.

A pair of 911 calls spanning 23 minutes recounted the harrowing experience. In the audio released yesterday, Mr. Sikes sounds panicked at times as he tells a dispatcher about a stuck accelerator. The dispatcher, Leighann Parks, repeatedly tells Mr. Sikes to throw the car into neutral and turn off the ignition. He often did not respond to instructions.

"My car can't slow down," Mr. Sikes tells her. At one point, Ms. Parks asks if he had put the car into neutral, and he responds, "I'm trying to control the car!"

Mr. Sikes said yesterday that when the accelerator stuck, he weighed all his options. He feared turning off the car 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, was not interfering with the gas pedal. "It was accelerating out of control. Period," said Mr. Sikes.

Sudden, unintended acceleration is alleged to have caused 56 fatal accidents involving U.S. Toyotas since 2004. Toyota has issued about 10 million recall notices worldwide to address that and other problems.

Mr. Sikes said he received a recall notice, but when he took his Prius in for service three weeks ago, the dealer said his car was not part of the recall. Toyota of El Cajon, where Mr. Sikes said he took his car, did not return requests for comment yesterday.

Mr. Hanson, the Toyota spokesman, said Toyota sends a preliminary notice to owners saying their vehicles are subject to a recall. A second notice details how and where the vehicle can be fixed.

"I believe what could have happened is Mr. Sikes could have received his preliminary notification which says, 'Hello, your car is going to be recalled, and we will notify you when to bring it in.'•"

Mr. Sikes he was a longtime Toyota owner and had never had a problem. But when a friend showed up in a Prius yesterday to take him to the dealer, he hesitated. "It just felt funny," he said. "I love Toyotas. I will not drive a Prius again."

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