Media falsely claiming CHP report backs Toyota Prius hoaxer’s claim

Over a week after I exposed the “Toyota Hybrid Horror Hoax” at Forbes. com, the press (as opposed to some TV networks, talk radio, and bloggers) just won’t throw in the towel.

“A California Highway Patrol report released on Wednesday in a sensational ‘runaway’ Toyota Prius incident appears to support the version of events given by the driver, which the automaker has called into question,” reports Reuters.

Really? Here’s the report. It’s just a few pages; read it for yourself. But it’s interesting to note what Reuters plucked that it believes to be so compelling.

•”‘I could see the driver sat up off his seat indicating that he was possibly applying the brake pedal with his body weight,” CHP Officer Todd Neibert wrote in his investigative report.” Sorry, but being up off your seat doesn’t mean you’re standing on the brakes. Try it for yourself in your own car.

•”‘I was able to view his actions through the lowered right rear window,” Neibert said in the seven-page written narrative. ‘His back was arched and both hands were pulling on the steering wheel. I noticed that the Prius slowed slightly, down to approximately 85 to 90 miles per hour.” As with the earlier comment, by definition this occurred after the officer arrived on the scene. It doesn’t tell us what Sikes was doing in the previous 25 minutes. And it’s very important that somehow when the officer showed up the Prius was slowing down at least slightly, thereby contradicting Sikes’s claim on the 911 tape and later that it wasn’t slowing at all.

•”Neibert wrote that Sikes ‘looked over at me briefly and appeared to be in a panicked state’ . . . . the brake lights on the blue Prius were lit as it ascended a long uphill grade at about 85 miles an hour.” Again, this was after the officer arrived on the scene that the brake lights were lit. As to appearing to be in a panicked state, that’s how Sikes would want to look isn’t it?

•”He said that Sikes complained of tightness in his chest, ‘appeared to be extremely stressed from the incident’ and was reluctant to get out of an ambulance when he learned that reporters were waiting to speak with him.” If you were the person pulling off a hoax, isn’t that what you would say and do? Absolutely you would not want to speak to reporters. You’d want to work on your story and address them later.

•”Neibert said in his account that he discovered a large amount of brake dust and brake pad material in and around the wheels. The accelerator and brake pedals in a normal resting position and that the floor mat did not appear to be interfering with them.” RIGHT! The accelerator was in an upright position, and yet Sikes claimed while the vehicle was moving it was so jammed that he leaned forward to grip it and couldn’t pull it up. Why, upon coming to a rest, did the accelerator suddenly pop up? As to the brake pad material, as the Wall Street Journal reported:

A federal safety investigation of the Toyota Prius that was involved in a dramatic incident on a California highway last week found a particular pattern of wear on the car’s brakes that raises questions about the driver’s version of the event, three people familiar with the investigation said.

During and after the incident, Mr. Sikes said he was using heavy pressure on his brake pedal at high speeds.

But the investigation of the vehicle, carried out jointly by safety officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Toyota engineers, didn’t find signs the brakes had been applied at full force at high speeds over a sustained period of time, the three people familiar with the investigation said.

The brakes were discolored and showed wear, but the pattern of friction suggested the driver had intermittently applied moderate pressure on the brakes, these people said, adding the investigation didn’t find indicators of the heavy pressure described by Mr. Sikes.

Now let’s recap just one of my findings in the piece that the CHP report doesn’t deal with because it concerns later events.

The 911 dispatcher, as you can hear on the Web, repeatedly begs Sikes to either stop the engine with the ignition button or put the gear into neutral. Sikes refused to do either, later giving various bizarre reasons. “I was afraid to try to [reach] over there and put it in neutral, he told CNN. “I was holding onto the steering wheel with both hands – 94 miles an hour in a Toyota Prius is fast.”


•    We know Sikes spent most of the ride with a cell phone in one hand.
•    Sikes claimed at a press conference that he reached under the dash and yanked on the floored accelerator. I’m thin with arms the average American length, but fell three inches short. Sikes almost certainly can’t do what he claims, but nobody’s asked him to repeat the motion. In any event, it can hardly be done with both hands on the wheel.
•    Finally in the 2008 Prius the shift knob is mounted on the dash expressly to allow shifting by merely reaching out with a finger. (See inset.)

Just what exactly does it take to convince the press?

It’s interesting that most people think Bogie said “Play it again, Sam!” in one film, while in another Bogart movie banditos said “We don’t need no steenking badges!” Yet all you have to do is pop in the DVD to see that neither quotation is correct. Likewise, we have a media that by and large has refused to make an effort little more than that to verify Sikes’s outrageous claims or point them out as such. The Washington Post, as I’ve noted, claims Sikes never said whether he put the car in neutral. Never mind that he told press conference and CNN that he didn’t and these are both on the Web.

If the media don’t see it in their interest, they won’t investigate – even to the point of half a minute of Googling. Remember that the next time you hear a Toyota horror story.