Toyota, U.S. officials investigate runaway Prius

LOS ANGELES/DETROIT Tue Mar 9, 2010 7:06pm GMT

A Toyota Prius hybrid car drives past downtown Los Angeles on the 10 freeway, January 27, 2009. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

A Toyota Prius hybrid car drives past downtown Los Angeles on the 10 freeway, January 27, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

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LOS ANGELES/DETROIT (Reuters) - U.S. safety regulators and Toyota Motor Corp dispatched investigators to San Diego on Tuesday to inspect a Prius that sped out of control on a California freeway a day earlier.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said two investigators from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration were sent to join a team from the California Highway Patrol "to be part of the investigation."

Toyota said its own inspectors were also working on Tuesday to try to find out what caused the 2008 Prius to surge uncontrollably to over 90 miles per hour as it was being driven by owner James Sikes, 61.

The high-speed incident, which involved a dramatic pursuit by a highway patrol car, has raised new questions about the automaker's damaging string of recent recalls and whether Toyota has done enough to address consumer complaints about unintended acceleration that have damaged its reputation and sales.

The Prius was taken to a Toyota dealership in El Cajon, California, where Toyota investigators were examining the car, Toyota spokeswoman Celeste Migliore said.

The Prius has been a "halo" car for the world's top automaker and dominates the market for fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles.

Sikes said he had received a recall notice to take his car into a Toyota dealership; but when he did, he was told that his car was not on recall lists, he told reporters.

The automaker has recalled the 2004-2009 Prius hybrids due to concerns that loose floor mats could entrap accelerator pedals, causing unintended acceleration.

On Monday afternoon, Sikes was passing another car on a highway near San Diego when the Prius accelerated out of control, the highway patrol said.

For the next 20 minutes, Sikes sped 30 miles along the freeway, he said.

"I pushed the gas pedal to pass a car and it did something kind of funny," Sikes told reporters. "It jumped and it just stuck there. As it was going, I was trying the brakes ... It wasn't stopping."

Sikes called the local 911 emergency service, and the highway patrol dispatched an officer who pulled alongside the Prius. The trooper used a loudspeaker to tell Sikes to use the emergency and regular brakes and to turn off the car's engine.

Once the Prius slowed to around 50 mph, Sikes turned off the engine of the car and it rolled to a stop with the trooper's car in front of it.

A California Highway Patrol spokesman in San Diego said the cause of the runaway car incident remains under investigation. "We do not have any initial findings at this point," she said.

Toyota has recalled more than 8 million vehicles worldwide for mechanical problems that can cause the accelerator to stick and for the risk that floor mats could trap an accelerator.

Unintended acceleration in the company's Toyota and Lexus vehicles has been linked to at least five U.S. crash deaths since 2007. Authorities are investigating 47 other Toyota crash deaths over the past decade.

Monday's incident, which attracted widespread media coverage, happened in the same Southern California county as a fatal crash in August 2009 that prompted new scrutiny of Toyota's safety record.

In that case, Mark Saylor, an off-duty California Highway Patrol trooper, and three family members were killed when a Lexus ES 350 they were driving sped out of control.

Toyota has said repeatedly that it believes that there is no problem with its electronic throttle control system.

A spokesman for the automaker said on Monday that it believed the steps it had taken should address the problems with reported unintended acceleration if repairs were completed properly.

(Additional reporting by Soyoung Kim; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Gerald E. McCormick)