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“I thought they were the coolest thing ever,” James says. He and his wife, Elizabeth, who teaches at an elementary school, bought their first Prius three years later. “I was very proud because we were the first teachers in the parking lot to be sporting a Prius.”
On Aug. 10, 2006, Elizabeth was driving toward Denver to catch an early-morning flight. Near the small town of Lawson, she pressed the brakes to slow down, and when she let off the pedal, the Prius took off. The car wouldn’t slow down “no matter how hard I pressed on the brake,” so Elizabeth used her left foot to slam down the emergency brake. Nothing.
The brakes spewed blue smoke from the back of the car, and when Elizabeth glanced down, the speedometer displayed 90 mph, and the Prius was rocketing toward a car in the slow lane. Gripping the steering wheel with both hands, Elizabeth whipped around that car along the shoulder of the interstate, exited, ran a stop sign, passed a couple of people walking in the road and steered into a grassy field when the feeder cut to the left.
“She said she felt like the pilot of a plane that was trying to crash-land,” Ted James says. “So she was looking for a place to crash the car, and that was one of the things that was really tough: She thought she was going to die and had enough time to think about it.”
The Prius sped through a wooded area, clipped a weather-monitoring shed, flipped and landed in a river.
Elizabeth survived the wreck, but her legs and back were banged up; she’s still hobbled, despite a year’s worth of physical therapy. Scar tissue on her intestines requires her to drink MiraLAX for the rest of her life to ease stomach pains.
After the crash, Ted James enlisted the help of a childhood friend, attorney Kent Spangler (who practiced family law at the time and is now a magistrate in Fort Collins, Colorado), to steer the Jameses through arbitration with Toyota. They wanted Elizabeth’s medical bills—about $15,000—paid and to have the smashed Prius examined for a cause of the wreck.
“You’d think Toyota would be interested in how their car functioned in that crash,” Ted James says. “My wife’s brother and sister owned Priuses, and we were really worried that this could happen to someone else. Toyota’s whole reaction was really disconcerting. It was like deny everything.”
Toyota’s response was, in fact, minimal. In a letter to James, the company blamed the problem on excessive brake wear, stating, “We are sure she believes that her vehicle accelerated on its own; but our inspection of her vehicle did not reveal any evidence to support her allegations.”
Bobette Riner’s experience wasn’t much better. When her Prius died in front of the parking lot, she composed herself and started the car again because she desperately needed to make her sales meeting. The Prius sputtered along for about a quarter-mile before shutting down again “at a spot where people coming from the Galleria couldn’t totally plow into me.”
The next day, she went to the dealership to find out what happened with her car, and the technician told her, “We know what’s wrong with it; you were out of gas.”
Riner was certain her gas tank wasn’t close to empty, and she wasn’t concerned that the Prius shut down; it was the sudden jolt of speed that scared her.
“That was more than being out of gas,” Riner says. “How do you explain it suddenly being 84 mph?”
* * *
Stories from Prius owners involving unintended acceleration are fairly common; one of the first places to publish them was the website www.consumeraffairs.com, which collects about 400 complaints per day that are read by editors and stored in an online database.
“One of the trends we started to see was that there were odd things going on with the Prius, not only with the acceleration, but also with loss of traction on slippery surfaces,” says Jim Hood, a former Associated Press writer who now owns the website. “The Prius was something a little different when it came out, so we paid a little more attention to it than if it were a brand-new pickup or something.”
The site’s automotive writer, Joe Benton, wrote about unintended acceleration for the first time in the summer of 2007, telling the story of a woman in Everett, Washington, whose Prius took off while she was on the interstate and wouldn’t slow down even as she repeatedly pumped the brakes.
Hood received hate mail from Prius owners when the negative story was posted. “They’re zealots and religious about their cars,” Hood says. “Quite honestly, we don’t give a damn about anything. If people want to drive those things, fine by us, but our job is to criticize and nitpick.”
Then the other horror stories rolled in.
One came from Richard Bacon, a Tacoma, Washington, resident who wrote, “This week, our 2008 Prius tried to kill me twice.” Bacon’s Prius died while he was driving up his snowy driveway, causing him to slide into oncoming traffic “that just missed hitting me broadside.”