Authorities: Prius seen near Border Patrol vehicle
EL CAJON: A California Highway Patrol report released Wednesday says an officer responding to a report of a runaway Toyota Prius arrived to find a Border Patrol agent near the driver with lights flashing.
The Border Patrol presence raises the prospect that there were other witnesses, but the report offers few new details and does nothing to clarify wildly divergent explanations from Toyota Motor Corp. and the driver, who says his gas pedal got stuck and sent him to speeds topping 90 mph March 8 on a California freeway.
Toyota has dismissed James Sikes' account, saying its tests show he pressed the gas and brakes rapidly 250 times, the maximum amount of data that the car's self-diagnostic system captures.
CHP Officer Todd Neibert wrote that he approached the Prius from behind to find a Border Patrol agent in an unmarked Chevrolet Tahoe with emergency lights flashing from the rear window.
"It was staying ahead of us and it was later determined that the agent driving the Chevrolet Tahoe was aware of the situation," Neibert wrote.
The report does not say how long the Border Patrol agent, who was not named, was in Sikes' proximity or whether the agent saw anything significant.
The CHP officer does not recall the Border Patrol agent stopping after Sikes safely came to a stop, said CHP spokesman Brian Pennings. He said the CHP had notified the Border Patrol after the driver called 911.
"The CHP is attempting to obtain a statement from the (Border Patrol) agent," Pennings said.
Jerry Conlin, a Border Patrol spokesman, said he had no immediate comment because he was unaware of any agent's involvement.
The CHP report is consistent with what Sikes and the CHP officer told reporters shortly after the incident. Pennings on Monday reaffirmed his agency's view that no evidence has emerged to doubt the driver's account.
"There's no factual information that can discredit Mr. Sikes' statement," he said.
The report was released the same day that investigators from Toyota and the U.S. government inspected a crashed 2005 Prius in a suburb of New York City to see if a black box-like device or its wreckage could point to problems with the brakes or accelerator.
The black box, known as an event data recorder, yielded information on engine speed and pedal position, Toyota spokesman Wade Hoyt said. Investigators were expected to return Thursday.
A housekeeper who was driving the car told police that it sped up on its own as she eased forward down her employer's driveway on March 9 and hit a wall across the street. She was not hurt. Harrison Police Department Capt. Anthony Marraccini said driver error had not been ruled out or indicated.
Hoyt said Toyota will share the results with local police. Marraccini said that any definitive information on the cause of the crash will be released to the public after that.
The California officer's report released Wednesday said he trailed Sikes' Prius at 95 mph on Interstate 8 east of San Diego, and the car slowed to about 50 mph before the officer told the driver over a loudspeaker to hit the floor brake and emergency brake simultaneously.
Sikes, 61, gradually came to an unassisted stop and was not injured.
The lights were on "for a period of time and would turn off, indicating the driver was possibly pumping the brakes," Neibert wrote in his seven-page incident report, which was accompanied by dozens of photos.
"I was within 1/4 mile of the vehicle and could smell the heated brakes which indicated they had been used extensively," it states.
Neibert said he Sikes' Prius was 20 miles from a steep downgrade and sharp left turn.
"If the Prius made it to that location, the ultimate result would have most likely led to a catastrophic ending," the officer wrote.
Sikes later told Neibert he had tried three times to lift the gas pedal with his hand but was unsuccessful, the report states.
The driver was initially reluctant to speak with reporters, but the officer urged him to go to the station to "put the media at ease," according to the report.
"I advised him the media would most likely seek him out if he did not speak to them voluntarily," Neibert wrote.
Toyota has stopped short of saying that Sikes fabricated his story but has said his version of events is inconsistent with its technical findings. Tracy Segal, a company spokeswoman, said she had no immediate comment on the CHP report because she had not received a copy.
The episode was among the highest-profile headaches Toyota has suffered in recent months. It recalled more than 8 million cars and trucks worldwide because gas pedals can become stuck in the down position or be snagged by floor mats. Dozens of Toyota drivers have reported problems even after their cars were supposedly fixed.