Wild Rides

Between serious safety and environmental concerns, the Toyota Prius isn't the angel that everyone thinks it is.

About the time the Prius was released in America, James, a middle-school math teacher from Eagle, Colorado, received a $10,000 Toyota Time grant that was given to 35 math teachers around the country to develop inventive programs.

James used his money to buy equipment to monitor the water quality of a local watershed, and his students used advanced math techniques to analyze the data they collected.

In 2002, Toyota paid for James, along with the other Time winners, to travel to the company's U.S. headquarters in Torrance, California, and talk about their projects. During a lunch break one day, Toyota executives introduced the group to the Prius. Each teacher was outfitted with one of the hybrids for a day of driving around Torrance.

Houstonian Bobette Riner had her Prius for a couple months before it took off and died, leaving her stranded on the side of the road. Now she's stuck with a car she's afraid to drive.
Daniel Kramer
Houstonian Bobette Riner had her Prius for a couple months before it took off and died, leaving her stranded on the side of the road. Now she's stuck with a car she's afraid to drive.
Doug Korthof lives near Toyota headquarters in California. He thinks the Prius helped kill the electric car.
Jennie Warren
Doug Korthof lives near Toyota headquarters in California. He thinks the Prius helped kill the electric car.

"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," he says.

On August 10, 2006, Elizabeth was driving the car east on Interstate 70 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 towards 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 the Lawson ramp, 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 were 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 and 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 now is 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 Toyota dealership where she bought the car sent a tow truck and the driver took Riner to her sales meeting, because she hoped to sell "about $180,000 worth of stuff."

"I ended up being an hour and 20 minutes late, and only one guy stuck around, so I missed that opportunity," Riner says.

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 shocked because she 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 other Prius owners involving unintended acceleration are fairly common, and one of the first places to publish them was the Web site www.consumeraffairs.com, which collects about 400 complaints a day that are read by editors and then 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 with loss of traction on slippery surfaces," says Hood, the former Associated Press writer who now owns the Web site. "The Prius was something a little different when it came out, so we paid a little more attention to it than if it was a brand-new pickup or something."

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