Runaway Toyota Prius Driver: 'He Thought He Was Going to Die'

California Highway Patrol report offers harrowing narrative of James Sikes' ride

March 16, 2010, 10:46 AM

March 17, 2010 — -- James Sikes, the driver of the Toyota Prius that allegedly accelerated out of control last week, appeared to be in a "panicked state," "displayed signs of shock," "was clearly shaking," and "thought he was going to die," according to a just released report on the incident by the California Highway Patrol.

The report, written by the CHP officer who helped Sikes bring his car to a stop, Todd Neibert, does not express any skepticism about Sikes' version of events, which has now been called into question by representatives of Toyota and others.

Written two days after the incident but not released till Wednesday afternoon, the report says that Sikes' vehicle reached speeds of up to 95 mph. Neibert states that when he first approached the Prius on Interstate 8 east of San Diego, its "red brake lights were on for a period of time and would turn off, indicating the driver was possibly pumping the brakes."


Neibert said even when he was within a quarter of a mile of the Prius he could "smell the heated brakes, which indicated they had been used extensively."

Neibert also stated that when he observed Sikes through a lowered window, the driver's "back was arched" and he "sat off up off his seat indicating that he was possibly applying the brake pedal with his body weight."

Later, as both vehicles ascended a "long uphill grade," Neibert states that he again observed that the Prius' "brake lights were on" as it sped at about 85 mph. After the Prius came to a stop, Neibert stated that he visually inspected the front brakes and found the brake pads were "worn down to what appeared to be nearly metal on metal."

Neibert writes that when he spoke to Sikes after the incident, he observed that Sikes' voice was "labored and shaky." According to Neibert, Sikes told him "he thought he was going to die." The report notes that a paramedic who evaluated Sikes at the scene found the driver's "blood pressure and pulse rate" were very high.

At a press conference on Monday, Toyota representatives said that what Sikes said happened to his 2008 Prius on the freeway last week conflicted with what their own inspection and test drive of the vehicle showed.

"There are significant inconsistencies between the event of March 8 and the findings of this investigation," said Toyota Motor Sales spokesman Mike Michels.

According to Toyota, while Sikes' front brakes were worn away, his rear brakes were "fine," and a reading of electronic data from Sikes' car showed that he had applied the brakes and the accelerator alternately at least 250 times. Michels and the other Toyota representatives gathered before a microphone at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium stopped short, however, of saying the data indicated Sikes was actually trying to keep the car in motion rather than stop it.

Michels said the company was not calling Sikes a liar. "We are not calling him anything," said Michels.

Asked what might motivate Sikes to tell a tale of random acceleration if it were not true, Michels said he didn't want to speculate. "We don't have an explanation," said Michels.

Michels said the data showed that Sikes must have applied repeated light pressure on the brakes rather than the full pressure needed to stop the car. He said that if Sikes had been applying more than moderate pressure on the brakes while the accelerator was pressed or stuck to the floor, the override system in the Prius would have been activated by the brake and shut off the acceleration.

After the press conference, however, a Toyota representative confirmed to ABC News that the electronic data did not show how hard the brake was being pressed. "The level of brake application is not recorded," said Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons, "only that the brakes were completely released and applied."

Lyons also clarified Michels statement about the number of times Sikes must have hit the brakes and the accelerator. He said that the data showed that Sikes pressed and released the brakes 254 times, and did not show Sikes pressing on the accelerator, only that the throttle remained open throughout the incident.

Asked at the press conference why the California Highway Patrol officer who helped Sikes bring his car to a stop reported seeing Sikes "standing" on the brakes, Michels said he assumed the officer's account was true.

CHP press spokesperson Brian Pennings told the Blotter that the department continues to believe Sikes' case was not a hoax. "Toyota has not presented any factual data to the Highway Patrol that would discredit Mr. Sikes' account," said Pennings. Pennings also noted that Toyota held its press conference without interviewing the officers at the scene and while a federal investigation into the case was continuing. "if they choose to do that, that's fine, but it's still ongoing," said Pennings.

James Sikes' attorney, John Gomez, said the tests did not replicate what his client had actually done while driving the car. He also said the tests did not provide evidence for those who believe Sikes faked the incident for profit or publicity.

The CHP report noted that Sikes was "very reluctant to speak to the media," and "refused to exit the ambulance" once he observed media on the scene. Neibert stated that he convinced Sikes to go to the CHP office "in order to put the media at ease," and advised him that "the media would most likely seek him out if he did not speak to them voluntarily."

"There is no reason whatsoever to believe it's a hoax," said Gomez. "And just to be clear, he is not filing a lawsuit, ever. He's not asking for money, ever. So there's no reason for him to make it up."

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