Wild Rides

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

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."

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.

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."

Then he was driving with his wife, merging into traffic at 45 mph, and he crossed over a patch of snow. The Prius locked up and Bacon lost control and skidded toward a 30-foot drop down the side of the road. "Only a snowbank kept my wife and me from serious injury or death," he wrote.

Toyota sent out the caution about the Prius's floor mats about two months after the first story from Hood's Web site.** From a company press release: "If properly secured, the All Weather Floor Mat will not interfere with the accelerator pedal. Suggested opportunities to check are after filling the vehicles tank with gasoline, after a carwash or interior cleaning, or before driving the vehicle. Under no circumstances should more than one floor mat ever be used in the driver's seating position: the retaining hooks are designed to accommodate only one floor mat at a time."

But floor mats didn't explain why many of the Priuses took off, including the case of the Houston man who parked his Prius in his driveway but left the car running as he walked toward his house. The Prius surged forward through his garage door, slamming into the back of his Nissan Altima.

"It was a pretty rough accident," says Markus Drunk, a mechanic who worked on the Prius at Autohaus K&H in Houston. "He was lucky that the Altima was parked there because his backyard is not too long, and the neighbors had a family gathering. It would've ran right into all those people, and he was a little shook up over the situation."

Then there's Kevin McGuire, who test-drove a Prius one afternoon last fall — a year after the safety notice — at Dorschel Toyota in Rochester, New York.***

"There was a wait list to buy one, but they happened to have one in the showroom for me to drive," he says. "The saleswoman was very knowledgeable on the vehicle, and I was impressed with the car. Everything seemed to be in order."

The weather was crisp and sunny, and with the saleswoman along for the ride, McGuire drove the Prius away from the city to a hillside road without much traffic. As he recalls the conversation:

"What do you think?" the saleswoman asked.

"I like this feel," McGuire said.

"Well, go ahead and jump on it and see what you think about the acceleration."

McGuire stomped on the gas pedal and the Prius zipped forward, but when he took his foot off the accelerator, the car kept going faster. He turned to the saleswoman.

"This is all well and good, but there's one problem," McGuire told her.

"What?"

"It's not stopping."

"What?!"

"Look it, we're still going."

"Take your foot off the accelerator," she told him.

"I did!"

"Pull over!"

McGuire hesitated to steer the car off the road, because he was slamming on the brake with all his weight, and the Prius wouldn't stop. Smoke poured from the tires, and finally the car shut down and he pulled to the shoulder.

"She was scared and I was scared, too. We just sat there for a couple of minutes and caught our breath, and then she said, 'Okay, start it up,'" McGuire says. "You could hear the engine rev up, and when I put it in drive — boom! The car took off again."

This time, the car died almost immediately and McGuire pulled over again. After starting it a third time, all was okay, and he cautiously drove back to the dealership. The saleswoman asked a technician to look at the Prius.

"Oh, people put in too many floor mats," the technician said. "So the accelerator gets stuck."

McGuire responded, "Wait, this is not my car, this is your car. I haven't done anything. It's not me, there's something wrong with this car."

The Houston Press found just one person currently in litigation with Toyota concerning unintended acceleration.

Art Robinson, the man involved in that crash, wouldn't talk to the Press (saying his lawyer has advised him not to), but a Toyota spokeswoman confirmed the lawsuit, declining to comment further.

Apparently, hours after Robinson purchased his 2005 Prius in Tacoma, Washington, the car began to handle funny, and as he was driving back to the dealership, the car took off. Robinson stomped on the brake and the emergency brake, but the car wouldn't slow down.

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