Toyota's response was, in fact, minimal. In a letter to the Jameses, 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. The Toyota dealership where she'd bought the car sent a tow truck, and the driver took Riner to her sales meeting, where she still hoped to sell "about $180,000 worth of stuff," she says. "I ended up being an hour and twenty minutes late, and only one guy stuck around, so I missed that opportunity."

The next day, she went to the dealership to find out what had 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. Besides, she wasn't concerned that the Prius had 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?"

One of the first places to publish Prius owners' stories of "unintended acceleration" was the website 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 AP 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 was 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 resident of Tacoma, Washington, 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 thirty-foot drop down the side of the road. "Only a snowbank kept my wife and me from serious injury or death," he wrote.

Toyota recalled the floor mats about two months after the first story on Hood's website. 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 vehicle's 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 simply took off. For example, there was the case of a 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. "He was lucky that the Altima was parked there, because his back yard 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 recall — 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:

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