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Prius inquiry takes a detour

Rift over involvement of a congressman's aide in the runaway Toyota case in San Diego County causes an hours-long delay.

March 11, 2010|By Nathan Olivarez-Giles
  • The runaway Toyota Prius is stopped after going more than 90 mph on Interstate 8 in San Diego County.
The runaway Toyota Prius is stopped after going more than 90 mph on Interstate… (NBC News via AFP/Getty Images )

Federal inspection of the runaway Toyota Prius that took a wild ride on a San Diego County freeway was delayed several hours Wednesday when a California congressman insisted that someone from his office witness the examination.

A team of inspectors from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was already at Toyota of El Cajon examining the car -- which reportedly had a stuck accelerator, causing it to speed for half an hour before the driver got it stopped -- when a staffer from the office of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) arrived in the late morning.

The staffer, whose name was not released by Issa's office, said he was there to watch the examination, said Kurt Bardella, a spokesman for the congressman.

The NHTSA team refused to allow him to watch its work, Bardella said, but Issa's representative stayed put.

"As soon as we walked in, they walked out," he said. "It was a standoff."

Issa, a ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that has been investigating safety problems at Toyota Motor Corp., issued a biting statement.

"It is absolutely ridiculous that NHTSA would go to such extreme lengths to conceal congressional oversight from this inspection," Issa said. "We've seen how effective NHTSA operates without oversight."

NHTSA declined to comment Wednesday.

The federal agency was not the only team examining the car. Toyota safety representatives were on the scene too.

"We're inspecting the car alongside NHTSA, but the investigations are separate and we aren't working jointly, just simultaneously," Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons said.

In some ways, Toyota's investigation of the incident had progressed further. Lyons said the team had already interviewed the driver of the car, James Sikes, 61, who struggled to control the 2008 Prius before bringing it to a stop with the coaching of a California Highway Patrol officer who pulled alongside.

Bardella said Sikes had yet to speak with NHTSA.

With the work halted, the NHTSA inspectors, Toyota team and Issa staffer waited for word from Washington.

It came about three hours later, after a brief conversation between the congressman and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood -- who oversees NHTSA -- resolved the rift.

Issa won. His staffer -- who is not an automobile expert -- will be present for the entire examination of the car, which is expected to take several days.

"I think it is a good step forward that [LaHood] acknowledged the benefit of bringing in congressional oversight into NHTSA's process," Issa said.

Sudden acceleration has been alleged as the cause of 56 fatal accidents involving Toyotas in the U.S. dating to 2004.

Toyota has issued approximately 10 million recall notices worldwide to address sudden acceleration, as well as braking and other problems in its vehicles.

nathan.olivarezgiles@

latimes.com

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