Blogging from PHOENIX—Japanese auto maker Toyota is behind effort to discredit the driver of the runaway Prius.   

Despite statements by the California Highway patrol officer who was able to smell burning brakes. In the last couple days “concerns” and “nagging questions” have filtered up from social networking sites into the mainstream media. “Why didn’t the driver simply throw the transmission into neutral as officers urged him to do?

Toyota which spent years covering up the problems with its cars insists there is a fail-safe mechanism that will cut power to the engine in such situations. Several major media outlets are now suggesting he could have made the story up in pursuit of fame and money.

You have to wonder are editors and reporters simply passing along public speculation over the motives of the driver, or is Toyota’s P.R firm working overtime and shelling out big bucks in the form of advertizing contracts in an attempt to discredit 61-year-old James Sikes, the real estate broker who made the frantic call to 911 last Monday because his accelerator was stuck.

Without offering any sources the A.P. writes of “skeptics” and mentions the infamous “balloon boy hoax” in an article expressing doubts about the story. Despite the fact not a shred of factual evidence has been offered to suggest Sikes is being dishonest, dozens of news papers, blogs and media outlets have all but declared the incident a hoax. The California Highway Patrol has repeatedly said it has no reason to suspect a hoax.

The C.H.P does not plan to investigate the incident or perform a mechanical inspection but Investigators from Toyota and the federal government are looking into the incident.”There is no factual information that I’m aware of, or the highway patrol is aware of, that would discredit his story,” agency spokesman Brian Pennings said Friday.

For the record Sikes spoke to reporters who sought him out, but he has not sought attention or gone on the talk show circuit and the law firm representing him said its client does not intend to take legal action against the automaker.

Sikes says he didn’t put his car in neutral as a California Highway Patrol officer and dispatcher urged because he was afraid the car might slip into reverse or flip, which seems a reasonable response, if indeed his car was rocketing down the road. “I had never played with this kind of transmission, especially when you’re driving, and I was actually afraid to do that,” he said Tuesday. “I was afraid to do anything out of the normal.”

Toyota insists all its Priuses are equipped with a computer system that cuts power to the wheels if the brake and gas pedals are depressed at the same time.”I’m mystified how it could happen with the brake override system,” Don Esmond, senior vice president of automotive operations for Toyota Motor Sales, said Thursday.

Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing at Edmunds com, said the brake-override system worked fine on his 2004 Prius at about 70 mph. He also shifted into neutral and reverse at those speeds,”Yawn” he wrote Friday. “This was not difficult.” But then Mr. Edmunds Company rakes in a ton of cash from Toyota, so you have to wonder just how impartial anyone whose bread is buttered by Toyota can really be.  

Raj Rajkumar, an electrical and computer-engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who studies auto electronics and is not beholden to Toyota for his livelihood, said the Prius could still have acceleration malfunctions even with the fail-safe system.

Sikes was able to stop after the Highway Patrol officer gave instructions over a loudspeaker, telling him to push the brake pedal to the floor while applying the emergency brake. Slowing the car to 50 mph at which point Sikes shut off the engine. Todd Neibert, the officer who gave instructions to Sikes, said he smelled burning brakes when he caught up with the Prius. He examined the car when it came to a stop. “The brakes were definitely down to hardly any material,” he told reporters. “There was a bunch of brake material on the ground and inside the wheels.”

Sikes said afterward that he was “embarrassed” by the incident, suggesting that he wished he would have handled it differently. “I’m just embarrassed about that,” he said. “You have to be there. That’s all I can say.” The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Toyota did examine Sikes’ Prius on Wednesday and Thursday but no allegations of a hoax were made.

“It would be irresponsible to assert it’s a hoax without having facts.” Said Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator, Sikes refusal to shift to neutral, is understandable. “It’s such a horrifying experience to be completely out of control.”

Claybrook also noted drivers often come under heavy scrutiny for reporting unintended acceleration. “Attacking the driver has long been the answer that’s not just Toyota, but the entire industry, she said.”Blaming the driver is old hat.” As to my lead in claim Toyota is behind the effort to discredit James Sikes, I offer the very same “proof” that the folks who allege it’s a hoax have provided, rumor, unnamed sources and rank speculation.

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