Did California Prius Driver Press the Brake Pedal Hard? WSJ Says No; Congressional Memo Says Yes

Ben Somberg

March 15, 2010

The Wall Street Journal had what seemed like a major scoop over the weekend:

A federal safety investigation of the Toyota Prius that was involved in a dramatic incident on a California highway last week found a particular pattern of wear on the car's brakes that raises questions about the driver's version of the event, three people familiar with the investigation said.

...

During and after the incident, Mr. Sikes said he was using heavy pressure on his brake pedal at high speeds.

But the investigation of the vehicle, carried out jointly by safety officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Toyota engineers, didn't find signs the brakes had been applied at full force at high speeds over a sustained period of time, the three people familiar with the investigation said.

The brakes were discolored and showed wear, but the pattern of friction suggested the driver had intermittently applied moderate pressure on the brakes, these people said, adding the investigation didn't find indicators of the heavy pressure described by Mr. Sikes.

See also this version of the report.

But the Journal's story has since been put into question. The AP reports:

The congressional memo said both the front and rear brakes were worn and damaged by heat, consistent with Sikes saying that he stood on the brake pedal with both feet and was unable to stop the car.

The Washington Post has also seen the memo, and reported in Monday's paper:

Sikes reported last week that he was unable to get his Prius to stop as it reached speeds of 94 mph even as he pressed both feet on the brake. That part of Sikes's story was verified by the technicians.

"The investigators removed the front tires from the car and a handful of brake dust fell out," the memo reads. "Visually checking the brake pads and rotor it was clearly visible that there was nothing left."

And of course, there’s one other piece of evidence that suggests the driver was braking hard: the California Highway Patrol officer who helped him bring the incident to a safe conclusion says that when he first caught up with the speeding Prius, he could smell burning brakes.

Developing.  

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