New Toyota Troubles: Copycat Complaints?

This photo released Wednesday March 17, 2010 by the California Highway Patrol shows a Toyota Prius after it was stopped with the help of a California AP – This photo released Wednesday March 17, 2010 by the California Highway Patrol shows a Toyota Prius after …

In the latest chapter of the runaway Toyota mystery, a man named James Sikes claimed that the accelerator on his 2008 Prius got stuck on March 8, at times reaching nearly 100 mph before he managed to stop the car using both the emergency and regular brakes. Sikes's account made national news, though questions about his story have recently surfaced.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigated the matter and concluded that its engineers had "not been able to find anything to explain the incident that Mr. Sikes reported." The investigation into his complaint is ongoing, but often when engineers can't recreate a claimed incident of mechanical malfunction, it means someone's not telling the truth. If Mr. Sikes did indeed fake or hoax his vehicle problems, he would not be the first.

Copycat Complaints

Copycat complaints often occur in the wake of widely publicized events, especially of defective or tampered products. Typically one or two high-profile "index cases" appear in the public's eye, leading a few other people who bought the same product to think, "Hey, that could have happened to me, too!" and pretend that it did.

This situation causes headaches for investigators trying to figure out what happened and how - every false, mistaken, or hoax case only muddies the water and delays finding the real cause of the problem. Hoaxes are also difficult for the product's manufacturer, whose public image is damaged by every new claim that makes the news - whether valid or fraudulent. Often it's only the headline "body count" numbers that the public pays attention to: People remember hearing that 50 deaths were attributed to runaway Toyotas, but if some (or even most) of the 50 are eventually revealed to have been caused by other factors, the public will still remember the original number.

The 1993 Pepsi scare

One of the most famous cases of hoax copycat complaints occurred in 1993 when a Tacoma, Wash., couple found a syringe inside a Diet Pepsi that had been opened and left out overnight. When they discovered it, the couple called their lawyer, who alerted the press. From there the story snowballed. As Time magazine writer Anastasia Toufexis wrote, "Jangling deep in the psyche of some souls, it appears, is an irresistible urge to be certified on the 5 o'clock news as a victim, a stoic survivor of sinister forces... Within days, similar reports poured in from around the country: more than 50 complaints in 23 states. In New York City, a man claimed that he accidentally swallowed two pins that were in a Pepsi bottle. In Beach City, Ohio, a woman said she found a sewing needle in a can of the soft drink."

The Washington couple's Diet Pepsi was only a harbinger of many contaminated soft drinks - or was it? "Even as cases mounted, many were being exposed as hoaxes," Toufexis noted. "By week's end more than a dozen people had been arrested for making false reports. Among them were a Colorado woman and South Carolina man who were captured on video by store security cameras putting objects in cans; others were admitting they lied."

Why we play victim

There are many reasons why a person might pretend to have been the victim of a scary or dangerous product. Money is of course a big motivation: Pepsi and Toyota have deep pockets, and potential "victims" assume that multinational companies will happily pay a few hundred thousand dollars to avoid bad publicity.

For many, however, the real motivation is simply attention. Some people want to be part of a story they see unfolding in the national news. Others just like pulling a prank to see how far they can take it, assuming either that they won't get caught, or that little will happen if they are caught.

Often, they are right. In cases of copycat complaints, there's little a company can do unless the hoaxer demands money, in which case, he or she can be charged with extortion. Otherwise, it's merely a minor offense of filing a false report. Whether Sikes's incident is a real incident or copycat report remains to be determined, but investigators are watching for hoaxes.

Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His books, films, and other projects can be found on his website. His Bad Science column appears regularly on LiveScience.

LiveScience.com chronicles the daily advances and innovations made in science and technology. We take on the misconceptions that often pop up around scientific discoveries and deliver short, provocative explanations with a certain wit and style. Check out our science videos, Trivia & Quizzes and Top 10s. Join our community to debate hot-button issues like stem cells, climate change and evolution. You can also sign up for free newsletters, register for RSS feeds and get cool gadgets at the LiveScience Store.

Related Searches:

53 Comments

  • 17 users liked this comment Please sign in to rate this comment up. Please sign in to rate this comment down. 36 users disliked this comment
    granny Wed Mar 17, 2010 04:59 pm PDT Report Abuse
    The tragedy could still be coming--due to the limited access to Prius' black box, Many toyota drivers and their families could still be in danger. Toyota needs to make the complete black box records available to impartial accident investigators. Then and only then can we begin to trust our toyotas.
  • 8 users liked this comment Please sign in to rate this comment up. Please sign in to rate this comment down. 34 users disliked this comment
    antonio Wed Mar 17, 2010 06:39 pm PDT Report Abuse
    if u wouldve bought american, then you would only have the govt to blame
    Comment hidden due to low rating. Show Comment
  • 30 users liked this comment Please sign in to rate this comment up. Please sign in to rate this comment down. 5 users disliked this comment
    Callmecynic Wed Mar 17, 2010 06:45 pm PDT Report Abuse
    While experts are investigating, I wonder about this: Since you have been repeatedly advised that the accelerator could get stuck in your car model , wouldn't you have thought about shifting to Neutral if it happened to your car?
  • 21 users liked this comment Please sign in to rate this comment up. Please sign in to rate this comment down. 12 users disliked this comment
    J C Wed Mar 17, 2010 06:49 pm PDT Report Abuse
    A stick shift car would never have this issue learn to drive people.
  • 22 users liked this comment Please sign in to rate this comment up. Please sign in to rate this comment down. 39 users disliked this comment
    Gary N Wed Mar 17, 2010 07:40 pm PDT Report Abuse
    I find it troubling that Toyota is so willing to say that sikes is lying. There is no evidence that he is. Police have stated they see no evidence of a hoax or lying and everything seems to back up his claim. Stop blaming the driver!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

    The problem with Toyota's cars is a software or computer problem. This is what happens when you give the car's computer control of everything in the car. "Drive by wire" they call it. Something is making the computer decide to accellerate the vehicle, and think that the driver want's this command. The Prius has active breaking. Meaning the electric motors break the car while recharging the batteries. The car cannot accellerate and break at the same time, so the computer must be sending the command to accellrate. The computer glitch is making the electric motors accelerate instead of breaking and the manual breaks are not strong enough to stop the accelleration. The computer doesn't record this as a problem because it thinks that's what the driver wants when it isn't. When you shut the car off, the computer re-boots and it is normal again and that's why Toyota can't find anything wrong. And won't until the computer glitch happens again. That's the $64,000 question. What is making the computer glitch happen?
  • 16 users liked this comment Please sign in to rate this comment up. Please sign in to rate this comment down. 6 users disliked this comment
    Eric Wed Mar 17, 2010 09:37 pm PDT Report Abuse
    This phenomenon (faking bad experiences for attention or financial gain) is very real, fairly well documented, and (at least to me) extremely disturbing.

    That being the case, I'm not convinced by either side with regard to Mr. Sikes. He hasn't tried to make any kind of damage/injury claim so far, and he's far from a media darling, so unless this was an unsuccessful suicide bid, that he wanted to have Toyota blamed for so that his wife was taken care-of financially (only possible motive I can think of considering the remainder of his behavior....), he seems to gain nothing.
  • 7 users liked this comment Please sign in to rate this comment up. Please sign in to rate this comment down. 12 users disliked this comment
    John Thu Mar 18, 2010 05:45 am PDT Report Abuse
    Every talking head news reader on tv gets paid by the networks how do all you Toyota Cheerleader dopes think the network makes it money???? That's correct advertisers, now how many Toyota/Lexus ads do you see lately?? They have flooded network programing with their junk, the media scum would never bite the hand which feeds them. I would bet it is the antilock brake computer interface which is causing all the troubles, The cop following the California guy said the brake lights were on constant yet the data stored said it was pulsing on and off, but who cares, Toyota has the money.
  • 23 users liked this comment Please sign in to rate this comment up. Please sign in to rate this comment down. 20 users disliked this comment
    AsiaTique Thu Mar 18, 2010 06:11 am PDT Report Abuse
    all about scams! i am sure someone is behind of all this nonsense noises! I have no problem of buying another TOYOTA and the quality of any TOYOTA is no matter what -> by far superior in compared to the American Craps!
  • 16 users liked this comment Please sign in to rate this comment up. Please sign in to rate this comment down. 8 users disliked this comment
    Hates Cap-Lockers Thu Mar 18, 2010 06:24 am PDT Report Abuse
    @Callmecynic: Depending on the speed, the way the Pius was designed, you can't shift into neutral when the car is in motion. Ask any Prius owner. Maybe it's time to go back to standard shifters and real keys that would let you turn the engine off while still leaving the steering wheel unlocked.

    And why did Mr. Sikes Prius have no front brakes left? They were burned out, but the back brakes were OK? And why did the CA Highway Patrol acknowledge that they smelled the brakes burning? Why did he call 911 and get help if he was trying to commit suicide when he could have just crashed at 94 mph and be done with it?

    Lots of questions, no answers, yet Mr. Sikes is the focus for part of a copycat article when nobody has proved anything against him?
  • 28 users liked this comment Please sign in to rate this comment up. Please sign in to rate this comment down. 4 users disliked this comment
    Anonemouse Thu Mar 18, 2010 06:27 am PDT Report Abuse
    I can tell you it takes a decent amount of time to get your Prius up to 100 MPH. The top speed I have ever gotten was 108- that was on very flat ground and took a while to really push it. I have a 2006 Prius and runs great! I am very reluctant to believe all these Prius owner's cars going nuts. I think they should open there credit records to and see if they just need to dump a car they cannot afford anymore.

Post a Comment

Sign in to post a comment, or Sign up for a free account.