NEW YORK — Reports of sudden acceleration in the Toyota Prius have spiked across the country, with an incident involving a runaway Prius in California on Monday followed by a similar incident that ended in a crash in New York on Tuesday. But that doesn't mean there's an epidemic of bad gas pedals in the popular hybrid.
Experts on consumer psychology say the relentless negative media attention Toyota has received since the fall makes it much more likely that drivers will mistake anything unexpected — or even a misplaced foot — for actual danger.
"When people expect problems, they're more likely to find them," said Lars Perner, a professor of clinical marketing at the University of Southern California.
On Monday, a man driving on a Southern California freeway said his 2008 Prius sped out of control, reaching 94 mph, before a patrol officer helped him bring it to a stop.
Then Tuesday in suburban New York, the owner of a 2005 Prius said his housekeeper was driving it forward down the driveway when the car lurched forward, crossed the street and hit a stone wall.
"She appears to have all her faculties," Capt. Anthony Marraccini of the Harrison, N.Y., police said of the housekeeper Wednesday. "She didn't appear to be disoriented in any way. There's nothing at this particular time that would indicate driver error."
Investigators from the federal government and Toyota are looking at both cases, and authorities have not suggested either case is anything but legitimate.
In the first 10 weeks of this year, 272 complaints have been filed nationwide for speed-control problems with the Prius, according to an Associated Press analysis of unverified complaints received by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
By comparison, only 74 complaints were filed in all of last year, and just eight the year before that.
For problems with the brakes, rather than the gas, the figures are even more stark: 1,816 filed so far this year vs. just 90 in all of 2009 and fewer than 20 in every other year of the past decade. Toyota recalled 440,000 Priuses on Feb. 8 because its antilock brakes seemed to fail momentarily on bumpy roads.
It's doubtful the Priuses of the past two years suddenly became more dangerous than those made in years past.
Toyota has continually said that it has found nothing wrong with its electronic throttle controls and that it is confident they work properly.
The government does not give statistics on how many of the reported car problems are actually confirmed. Toyota keeps its own stats — and, perhaps not surprisingly, does not release them.
So there's no way to know how many runaway cases are for real — even as the figures pile ever higher.
Even the heightened number of complaints is relatively small compared with how many Priuses are on the road. Toyota sold about 750,000 of them from 2004 to 2009.