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California police report supports Prius driver

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A California Highway Patrol report released on Wednesday in a sensational “runaway” Toyota Prius incident appears to support the version of events given by the driver, which the automaker has called into question.

The 2008 Toyota Prius owned by James Sikes after a California Highway Patrol officer assisted Sikes in stopping the vehicle along Intersate 80 near El Cajon, March 8, 2010. REUTERS/California Highway Patrol/Handout

The written account by a CHP officer who raced to the aid of James Sikes after his emergency call on March 8 says that the 61-year-old realtor appeared to be stomping heavily on the brake pedal while speeding at 85 to 90 miles per hour on a freeway near San Diego.

Toyota has said it found no evidence that Sikes had been applying the brakes forcefully and that by doing so he should have been able to stop his blue 2008 Prius.

“I could see the driver sat up off his seat indicating that he was possibly applying the brake pedal with his body weight,” CHP Officer Todd Neibert wrote in his investigative report.

“I was able to view his actions through the lowered right rear window,” Neibert said in the seven-page written narrative. “His back was arched and both hands were pulling on the steering wheel. I noticed that the Prius slowed slightly, down to approximately 85 to 90 miles per hour.”

Neibert wrote that Sikes “looked over at me briefly and appeared to be in a panicked state” as they drove at high speeds along Interstate 8. The officer also noted that the brake lights on the blue Prius were lit as it ascended a long uphill grade at about 85 miles an hour.

It was then that he advised Sikes through a loudspeaker to apply the brake pedal and emergency brake simultaneously. Shortly afterward, the car’s speed dropped dramatically and then came to a stop.

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Neibert said in his account that he discovered a large amount of brake dust and brake pad material in and around the wheels. The accelerator and brake pedals in a normal resting position and that the floor mat did not appear to be interfering with them.

He said that Sikes complained of tightness in his chest, “appeared to be extremely stressed from the incident” and was reluctant to get out of an ambulance when he learned that reporters were waiting to speak with him.

At a news conference on Monday, a week after the incident, Toyota held a news conference to announce that their preliminary investigation resulted in findings “inconsistent” with Sikes’ account.

Toyota said it had found no evidence that Sikes had been applying the brakes forcefully even though the front brakes had been worn down to the metal.

Executives for automaker said severe break wear could result from a driver intermittently and lightly tapping the brakes lightly over a long period of time.

The Toyota executives said that stepping on the brake pedal with moderate to heavy pressure should have activated the hybrid vehicle’s brake override function, which immediately cuts power to the engine when the brakes and throttle are engaged simultaneously and brings the car to a swift halt.

That was how the other Prius vehicles behaved when members of the media were allowed to test drive the car at the company’s news event.

Separately, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration engineers failed to replicate the runaway scenario reported by Sikes when they test-drove the car after the incident, and said they found no evidence to support or disprove his account.

The incident in San Diego came at a crucial time for Toyota, which has struggled to reassure a jittery public it had turned a corner in dealing with safety issues that sparked a recall of 8.5 million vehicles worldwide.

Scrutiny of the Prius, a vehicle the automaker considers its most important, also raised the stakes for the company in ongoing U.S. investigations of unintended acceleration.

Reporting by Dan Whitcomb and Steve Gorman, editing by Leslie Gevirtz