NEW YORK — Reports of sudden acceleration in the Toyota Prius have spiked across the country. 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 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 Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.
In just 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.
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By comparison, only 74 complaints were filed in all of last year, and just eight the year before that.
For problems with the brakes, the figures are even more stark: 1,816 filed so far this year versus just 90 in all of 2009 and fewer than 20 in every other year of the last 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.
Earlier this week came one of the most high-profile cases of any Toyota problem so far: 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, 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 didn't appear to be disoriented in any way. There's nothing at this particular time that would indicate driver error," Capt. Anthony Marraccini of the Harrison, N.Y., police said of the housekeeper.
Investigators from the federal government and Toyota are looking at both cases, and authorities have not suggested either case is anything but legitimate.
Toyota has continually said it has found nothing wrong with its electronic throttle controls and that it is confident they work properly.
Electronics experts say the computers, sensors and wires that control the throttle can be compromised by electronic interference. Toyota insists the problems with its cars have been mechanical.
The 2008 Prius, the model involved in the California freeway runaway, would have been equipped with a backup mechanism designed to cut power to the wheels if the gas and brake pedals are depressed at the same time, Toyota says.
The driver, James Sikes, said he jammed the brake repeatedly, even stood on it, before he was able to bring the car under control.
Toyota's engineers, as well as investigators from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, will check physical evidence from the Prius and compare that with what Sikes said in the interviews, Toyota spokesman John Hanson said.