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A Note To Owners Of (Potentially) Deadly Toyotas

— I got a note in the mail this week from Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. telling me I still may not be safe. I own a 2006 Prius and they told me a safety “defect” exists in 2004 through 2009 model year Prius vehicles.

“The defect is the potential for an unsecured or incompatible driver’s floor mat to interfere with the accelerator pedal and cause it to get stuck in the wide open position,” they said.

News stories of deadly Toyotas have been banished as the media and the public have moved on to other things. But the lawsuits continue and the car company keeps trying to squelch its liability. Therefore the note.

Toyota has encouraged me to go to my dealer for a free inspection if my vehicle is equipped with a set of “optional genuine Toyota All Weather Floor Mats.” Of course, I have no idea what they mean by that.

But the car company says it’s just trying to make it “less likely” that my floor mat will interfere with the accelerator. I love letters written by tort lawyers!

Earlier this year, I covered the story of James Sikes’ runaway Prius on I-8 in San Diego County.

In case you don’t remember, Sikes claims his 2008 Prius took off on its own one day, accelerating out of control as he desperately jammed on the brakes. He said the brakes didn’t work and he finally stopped after a state cop pulled alongside him, while traveling over 90 mph, and told Sikes to depress the brake and parking brake simultaneously.

Soon after the event, Toyota staged a theatrical press conference in the Qualcomm Stadium parking lot where they said Sikes’s story appeared to be hogwash. They tested the car and the brakes were fine. Shifting into neutral worked fine. Depressing the brake and accelerator together engaged an override system that shut off the engine, and there was nothing wrong with the car’s electronics or computer software.

You’d expect Toyota to say all that. But the National Highway Safety Administration basically came to the same conclusion.

I should point out that I heard a tape of the 911 call Sikes made from his car when he thought it was running out of control. He sounded terrified. Sikes may be a dope but I don’t think he’s a liar.

A faulty floor mat has been blamed for one fatal accident in San Diego County involving a Lexus, which is a Toyota product. But the floor mat in my Prius is secured to the floor with a couple of clips – it has been since the day I bought it. It doesn’t move. It’s just lying there.

You’d think the Sikes story, which became an international story, along with the many Toyota recalls and all that floor mat anxiety would have torpedoed profits for Toyota. But the car maker made quarterly profits of $2.2 billion between April and June this year, in the very midst of the controversy.

They say no publicity is bad publicity. I don’t believe that. But consumers do seem to be able to keep things in perspective.

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