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Japan police recommend charges in Prius crash

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[March 19, 2010]  TOKYO (AP) -- Japanese police are recommending charges against a driver who says his Toyota Prius crashed because of brake failure after an analysis of data from the car showed no defects.

The 37-year-old driver, whose identity was withheld because no charges have been filed, told police he pressed on the brakes but they didn't work, causing the Prius to hit a car stopping for a red light.

Two people in that car were slightly injured in the July 19 accident, which resulted in two other cars getting bumped at an intersection in Matsudo city, northeast of Tokyo.

Data from an event recorder, or "black box," in the Prius sent to a laboratory for analysis found the brakes were working properly, police said Friday.

The latest model Prius, the world's best-selling gas-electric hybrid, has been recalled in Japan and overseas because of a flaw in the antilock braking that made the brakes momentarily unresponsive under some driving conditions.

Toyota's quality control has come under scrutiny after recalls of more than 8 million vehicles in recent months, mostly in North America, for defective gas pedals, faulty floor mats and flawed braking.

Some drivers in the U.S. have complained about Toyota vehicles, including the Prius, speeding up on their own. An Associated Press analysis of U.S. government data found more than 100 reports of repaired cars continuing to accelerate on their own.

Consumer complaints about runaway Toyota models have been rising in Japan, especially for the Prius, according to government data.

The charge that Japanese police are recommending in the Prius accident is negligent driving resulting in damage or injury. It carries a maximum punishment of seven years' imprisonment and a fine of 1 million yen ($11,000).

But prosecutors may decide against pressing charges because the injuries were not serious and the two injured people are not demanding charges, police said.

Toyota spokesman Paul Nolasco said the automaker inspected the vehicle in the presence of police and could find nothing wrong.

"Toyota does not believe that the incident is related to the Prius brake issue," he said.

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Transport Ministry official Kazumi Furukawa said the government has also conducted tests on the Prius in the Matsudo accident and found no braking problems.

But the government is continuing an investigation for possible defects, including 13 other consumer complaints, and has not ruled out additional recalls, Furukawa said, while refusing to elaborate.

As is customary with criminal cases in Japan, police sent documents from its investigation into the Prius accident to the prosecutors' office earlier this month. Japanese prosecutors do not comment on ongoing cases until charges are filed.

Separately, Kentaro Kai, another ministry official, said Japan may start requiring all automakers to install a backup technology allowing brakes to override acceleration.

The move underlines growing concern in Japan about Toyota's recalls, widely seen as a stain on the nation's manufacturing prowess.

Toyota has said it will install brake override in all future models and retroactively on some models already on the roads.

On Monday, California police stopped a runaway 2008 Prius after the driver said the gas pedal jammed. Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are investigating.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is looking into a Prius crash Tuesday in New York in which the driver said the vehicle accelerated on its own and crashed into a wall.

[Associated Press; By YURI KAGEYAMA]

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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