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Runaway Prius: Toyota's sudden acceleration woes are mounting

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(Read caption) James Sikes (left) of Jacumba, Calif., was driving his Toyota Prius Monday when the accelerator got stuck and pushed the car to 90 miles per hour. He fought it for approximately 35 miles before finally getting it to slow to 50 m.p.h. with the help of Todd Niebert (right), an officer with the California Highway Patrol. CHP spokesman Brian Pennings joined the pair at a news conference about the runaway Prius and sudden acceleration.

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Toyota's right about one thing: It doesn't have a ghost problem.

Its sudden-acceleration challenges are real and growing, despite the company's best efforts to contain them.

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The latest incident came at the worst possible time for Toyota. Just hours after it put up a spirited defense of its electronic system, which some have blamed for sudden acceleration, James Sikes in San Diego County called 911 to say the accelerator of his Toyota Prius was stuck and that he couldn't slow down.

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A California Highway Patrol officer caught up to him 20 minutes later (Mr. Sikes was driving on a rural interstate highway) and clocked him going over 90 miles an hour despite his efforts to brake.

Over his loudspeaker, the officer got him to press the brake to the floor and apply the emergency brake while the car was going uphill. That combination got the car to slow down to 50 m.p.h., police said, at which point the driver turned off the engine and coasted to a stop.

No one was hurt – except Toyota's already battered reputation.

Earlier Monday, the automaker put on an elaborate engineering demonstration, recreating the conditions under which an Illinois university professor had induced sudden acceleration in a Toyota.

Toyota's message: The conditions created by the professor would never have happened in the real world.

The company expressed full confidence in its electronic system. "There isn't a ghost issue out there," said Kristen Tabar, general manager of electronics systems at Toyota's technical center.

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But in playing defense, Toyota is not addressing owners' and buyers' core concern: Is my car safe?

After all, who is the public going to believe: engineers, who can never guarantee that every car is completely safe (as one non-Toyota engineer at the demonstation pointed out), or news reports of a police officer and a Prius driver describing a car out of control despite their best efforts to stop it?

"I pushed the gas pedal to pass a car and it did something kind of funny ... it jumped and it just stuck there," Sikes said at a news conference.

It's not yet clear what caused Sikes's car to accelerate. Maybe it was a floor mat or a sticking pedal. Maybe it's something Toyota's engineers, for all their testing, can't explain. The company said in a statement that it's sending a representative to investigate.

The point is: Toyota is not going to win over customers by continuing to point fingers.

For years, when drivers complained about the problem, Toyota said it couldn't duplicate it. (Implicit message: It's the driver's fault.)

Then it was the floor mats. (Message: Stupid drivers don't properly attach their mats or they use nonstandard ones.)

Then it was the sticky pedal. (Message: Our component supplier fouled up.)

When is Toyota going to admit that it's not chasing ghosts? It has a problem it doesn't understand yet.

The company has already said it's installing an override system in its future vehicles that automatically cuts power to the engine when the accelerator and brake are pressed at the same time.

What will it do for existing Toyota owners? Complaints are mounting that its recalled cars continue to have sudden-acceleration problems even after they've been fixed.

The status quo – and Toyota's defensive posture – aren't working.