KCTV5 exposes the popular vehicle leaving thousands of drivers in the dark and investigates why the government agency set up to protect you from dangerous vehicles decided this is not a safety issue.
When a single headlight on Judith Kirby's 2005 Toyota Prius would flicker and go out, the Kansas City, MO, resident found a way to deal with it.
"By turning them off and turning them back on, I could get them to re-light," Kirby said. "It may go off again, in another five or 10 minutes, but I could get them to work again by turning them off and turning them on."
Then in the winter of 2010, while driving north on Interstate 35 at 70 mph, both headlights on Kirby's car started flickering and simultaneously went dark.
"Very alarming," Kirby said. "Very out-of-control feeling."
Fortunately, Kirby was able to turn her car's lights back on by toggling the main light switch back and forth. The next morning, she took her Prius to a Toyota mechanic.
"He came to me and told me both of the headlights needed to be replaced," Kirby said.
Kirby's experience is not unique.
In April 2009, after receiving 340 similar complaints, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration launched an investigation into failures of the High Intensity Discharge (HID) headlights installed in the second-generation Prius vehicles. Toyota sold nearly 700,000 of the 2005 to 2009 models in the United States. The HID lights were an available option in these vehicles.
The complaints include single and double headlight failures that happened on dark country roads and busy freeways alike. The chilling stories detailed near misses with oncoming cars and a collision between a passenger-side mirror and the elbow of a woman walking on the side of the road. She was not injured.
In August 2009, just four months after it began, NHTSA closed the defect investigation into Prius headlights, concluding the issue was not a "safety defect trend."
That was a mistake, according to Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer safety group known for pushing through recalls on the Ford Pinto and Firestone 500 tires in the 1970s.
"NHTSA rushed to close this case before the evidence was in," Ditlow said. "They should have continued the investigation to see what happened to the cars as they got progressively older."
Through direct contact with the agency and a publicity campaign, CAS has urged NHTSA to reopen its investigation and issue a recall of the second-generation Prius.
"What a recall would do is make the Prius what it should be, a safe car with lighting at night," Ditlow said.
KCTV5 examined every Prius complaint in NHTSA's online database and discovered more than 1,700 owners now reporting HID headlight failures. That is five times more than the number of reports that prompted NHTSA's original investigation.
Ditlow said that amount puts Prius headlight problems in the top 10 percent of the most complained about defects in agency history. And while 1,700 complaints may sound like a small problem, Ditlow called NHTSA's number "just the tip of the iceberg."
"There's always many more complaints that the manufacturers receive than NHTSA because the average consumer has never heard about NHTSA," Ditlow said.
Ditlow is correct. In 2011, Prius manufacturer Toyota settled a class action lawsuit with nearly 300,000 Prius owners over the HID headlight defect. The company agreed to extend the car's warranty to 50,000 miles and pay each owner roughly $365 for replacement bulbs.
While the settlement agreement helped drivers pay for new bulbs, it did not solve the headlight problem. In fact, Kirby and a growing number of Prius owners have reported a subsequent failure of their new, replacement bulbs.
"They've gone out again. The intermittent business has happened again," Kirby said. "It happened about three months afterwards, after we had them repaired."
To Ditlow, that reoccurrence serves as a strong piece of evidence this defect is more serious than a bad bulb.
"What you're going to have to do is redesign the headlight operating system in that," Ditlow said. "It's not just the HID bulb that's going out; it's the little computer that's controlling the headlights. So you got to put a better one in there."
NHTSA's final report found no such thing. The agency's investigation mirrored Toyota's conclusion that the Prius HID headlights went out because of bulb failures. NHTSA also dismissed the notion that both Prius headlights go out at the same time.
Kirby's experience told her otherwise.
"Both headlights do go out," she said. "Maybe not always, but it does happen."
In addition to Kirby, KCTV5 uncovered 238 Prius owners filing new complaints about double failures with NHTSA, since the investigation was closed. That discovery provided further proof to Ditlow that NHTSA closed the book on this defect too soon.
"If you look at a car that's been on the road for six or seven years as these vehicles now have, the likelihood that both are going out has significantly increased," Ditlow said. "When you have headlights failing on the road, they (NHTSA) should simply call Toyota's bluff and say, 'OK, we're going to sue you and force a recall.'"
Ditlow has a disturbing theory as to why the agency has decided against ordering a recall.
"Unfortunately you need a body count," Ditlow said. "The agency is not going to put a lot of resources into an investigation where they don't have any crashes, deaths or injuries, yet."
KCTV5 contacted both NHTSA and Toyota to request interviews for this story about Prius headlight failures.
A NHTSA spokesman said the agency doesn't grant interviews or comment on any investigation. The agency would only refer back to its official report.
Not only did Toyota decline KCTV5's interview request, the company would not reveal exactly how many Prius vehicles were equipped with HID lights. In writing, Toyota told KCTV5 that bulb replacements had fixed the headlight issue.
Ditlow pointed out the Prius headlight failures appeared to go away with the redesigned 2010 model. KCTV5's review of NHTSA's complaint database backed up that assertion. There were no complaints made in any of the Prius cars manufactured since 2010.
Copyright 2012 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.