Questions Raised About Driver's Account of 'Runaway Toyota' Incident

Toyota and the feds Test James Sikes' Prius, can't recreate sudden acceleration.

March 15, 2010 — -- Attempts by federal investigators and Toyota technicians to recreate the experience described by a San Diego driver who said his Toyota Prius raced out of control have raised questions about the driver's version of events.

James Sikes said that the accelerator on his 2008 Prius somehow got stuck during the half-hour March 8 incident, and that he could only stop the car, which reached a top speed of 94 mph, by applying the brakes and his emergency brake.

But investigators who test drove the car could not induce sudden acceleration, and said that recreating what Sikes described resulted in the car shutting down, according to a memo drafted by a Congressional observer and provided to ABC News by a source close to the investigation.

"These findings certainly raise new questions surrounding the veracity of the sequence of events that has been reported by Mr. Sikes," said Kurt Bardella, spokesperson for Rep. Darrell Issa, R.-Calif., ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, when contacted about the memo. "Hopefully, Mr. Sikes will be able and willing to help reconcile the gap between what has been said and what the reported empirical data depicts."

In a statement released Monday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) confirmed that its engineers had "recreated the drive Mr. Sikes took" and had "not been able to find anything to explain the incident that Mr. Sikes reported."

However, said the statement, "We would caution people that our work continues and that we may never know exactly what happened with this car. It is rare to recreate these unintended acceleration incidents except in floor mat entrapment cases."

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

"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."

According to the memo, a Congressional observer was present during the inspection and testing of the car by technicians from Toyota and investigators from NHTSA as of 2 p.m. Wednesday. Some inspection of the car had already been conducted by Toyota and NHTSA. Also present were Prius driver James Sikes and his attorney.

Investigators looked at the floor mat and the pedal. Toyota has issued massive recalls to adjust floor mats and pedals, and its floor mat recal includes the 2008 Prius.

"The investigators placed the floor mat back into the car and tried to make the gas pedal stick to the floor board, manipulating the floor mat to see if it was possible for the gas pedal to stick.," said the memo. "Both Toyota and NHSTA were unsuccessful."

Investigators also inspected the brakes on the vehicle. They found that both the front and rear brake pads were worn down, according to the memo. The front brakes were essentially gone. "After visually inspecting the rear brakes," said the memo, "it appeared that the brakes again were worn down." Sikes had said that he had applied the brakes throughout the incident, and officers from the California Highway Patrol had seen his brake lights on and smelled his brakes burning.

On Thursday, the inspection resumed. After replacing the brake pads and rotors, technicians test drove the vehicle. They also test drove an identical Prius.

Sikes had said that when his accelerator seemed to stick, he had tried to pull up on the pedal unsuccessfully. A representative of Toyota said that when both the gas pedal and the brake are pushed to the floor, either the car will shut off or the engine will seize up.

A technician drove the Sikes car for two hours, trying to recreate his experience without success. During the test drive, when the technicians pushed both the gas pedal and the brakes to the floor, the car shut off. This was true in both Sikes' car and in the identical Prius.

"It does not appear to be feasibly possible, both electronically and mechanically," said David Justo of Toyota Motor Sales, who was present for the test, "that his gas pedal was stuck to the floor and he was slamming on the brake at the same time."

"Decisions regarding the safety of America's drivers must ultimately be driven by fact and candor," said Kurt Bardella. "Once NHTSA and Toyota release a detailed conclusion based on their inspection, we will hopefully reach a fact-based resolution that will provide some peace-of-mind.

John Gomez, Sikes' attorney, said he didn't think the tests had proven anything.

"I don't think it's surprising that neither the NHTSA investigators nor anyone from Toyota was able to replicate the event," Gomez said. "They've been unable to replicate any sudden unintended acceleration event ever."

"There clearly is a ghost in the machine of these Toyota systems," Sikes said. "And the problem is, they don't leave a trace, much like a ghost."

Gomez said that what the investigators and technicians did with the brake and accelerator pedals during their test drive did not match what Sikes did. He said that during most of the incident Sikes pumped the brakes intermittently because he was afraid to burn them out.

"It was only at the end that he actually stood on the brakes," said Gomez.

Gomez said that his client had been "devastated" by discussion of his personal life in media coverage of the incident, including stories that have discussed his finances, and suggestions that he staged the event in order to sue.

"If the guy would have been an opportunist, he would have been on Jerry Springer and asking me if we can sue Toyota," Gomez said. "He's done none of those things."

Gomez also said reports that Sikes was behind on his car payments were incorrect.

Sikes said that his 2008 Toyota Prius accelerated uncontrollably on a California interstate last week, reaching 94 MPH before he was able to bring it under control with the help of the California Highway Patrol.

According to Sikes, during the Monday, March 8, incident, he held on to his steering wheel and tried to pull the accelerator pedal back with his right hand.

"I thought it was maybe stuck," he said. "Somehow the pedal was stuck. But it wasn't stuck on anything that was visible."

Sikes said that he also checked his floor mat during the incident, and the mat was "perfect."

Sikes attempted to bring the car under control himself, and then called 911 when he hit speeds over 90 miles per hour. Sikes said his vehicle reached 94 MPH.

After Sikes brought the car under control, California Highway Patrol officer Todd Neibert pulled his patrol car in front of Sikes on the shoulder of the interstate in case the vehicle began accelerating again.

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