Wake-Up Call: Toyota keeps Prius pedal to the metal

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Toyota has recalled 2.3 million vehicles and halted production on eight of its models, including the Camry and Corolla. But Toyota's "stop sale" order does not involve the Prius.

And that could be a problem, since numerous owners of that model have complained about mysterious -- and sometimes deadly-- acceleration, as reported in "The Prius Can Take Drivers on a Wild Ride," originally published in Westword last April. Among the wild-ride stories:

Ted James, a math teacher in Eagle, won a Toyota Time grant from the auto manufacturer about the time it introduced the Prius. And he and his wife were eager to buy one of the new cars.

On August 10, 2006, Elizabeth James was driving the car down I-70 to catch a flight at Denver International Airport. But after she pressed the brakes to slow down, the Prius took off. The car wouldn't slow down "no matter how hard I pressed on the brake," she remembers. Slamming on the emergency brake didn't help, either.

Now going ninety mph, Elizabeth whipped around a car in the slow lane, 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 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 finally came to a stop in a river. Elizabeth survived, and Ted enlisted a friend, attorney Kent Spangler (now a magistrate in Fort Collins), to steer the Jameses through arbitration with Toyota. They wanted Elizabeth's medical bills -- about $15,000 -- paid. And they wanted 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 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.'"

Well, not everything. Not anymore. Toyota cites the "sticking petal accelerator" as a reason behind the massive recall -- but the Prius rolls on.

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