“We’re out of control, No brakes!” Those were some of the final words of 45 year old Mark Saylor. He screamed them at the 911 operator as his car hurtled down the highway at 120 MPH. The loaner Lexus that he and his family had just picked up, allegedly suffered a malfunction which caused the accelerator to stick at full throttle. Seconds after calling 911, Saylors car entered an intersection and crashed horrifically. He, his wife, his thirteen year old daughter and his brother in law were all killed. These August 2009 deaths were just one small facet of the the “stuck gas pedal” phenomenon that’s been present in the media for several months now.
But this isn’t the first such occurrence. Back in the 80′s, Audi faced a stuck accelerator scandal of its own, as have other manufacturers. And truth be told, stuck accelerators are not an altogether uncommon phenomenon, nor is it a danger isolated to any one make or model. Stuck gas pedals and disabled brakes are commonly caused by everyday objects like bunched floor mats, loose water bottles rolling between pedals, and stray purses entangling the driver’s feet. So whether this scandal is ultimately linked to electronic malfunction, or faulty floor mats, it presents a very good learning opportunity for young drivers, and their not so young parents.
This isn’t one of the scenarios covered in Drivers Ed. And its not one easily solved by common sense, which by the way, is completely lost in panic scenarios. In fact, Saylor, the man mentioned in the first paragraph, was a 17 year veteran of the California Highway Patrol. Not even he could find a way of saving his family. Witnesses reported Saylors brakes to be engulfed in flames and completely ineffective as he wove through traffic.
Why didn’t he turn off the engine? The car he was operating was a loaner, and turned out to be a model with a push button ignition. There were no keys to turn off. But contrary to what might have been your first thought, shutting off the engine would not have been a good thing here. By holding the button in for three seconds, an eternity under those conditions, Saylor could have stopped the engine. But in so doing, he would have lost all power assist to the brakes, all vehicle control systems would have gone down, and the steering wheel would have locked in the anti-theft position. And that’s exactly what would happen to you if you suddenly turned off the key of your car while driving. Saylor was already traveling at highway speeds, and this certainly would have worsened the scenario.
Things like shifting into neutral, park or a lower gear can also help in these situations, but this requires removing a hand from the wheel, which may also do more harm than good.
So what do you do? Mash and Crash. First, take both feet and mash that brake pedal all the way to the floor. This is a good technique, because it also happens to be your first instinct. The only problem is that it might not work right away. People tend to pump the brakes instead of just holding them. This is where Saylor likely erred. But according to an article recently published in Car and Driver magazine, mashing the brakes to the floor will eventually stop an out of control vehicle, even when it is racing at full throttle. In many cases, the car will actually stop very quickly. Conversely, pumping the brakes will ultimately cause total brake failure.
Second, you crash it. Far better that you choose the crash, than let fate do the choosing for you. Certain objects are much more forgiving than others. You never want to crash into an oncoming vehicle, the back of a tractor trailer, or a large tree. These things have a high fatality rate. Likewise, you never want to hit a baby carriage, or the driver’s door of another occupied car. But certain things are very capable of safely stopping a runaway car. And you should make a habit of noticing these things, just in case you need them someday.
Highways are lined by Jersey Barriers, guard rails and light landscaping that are designed to safely scrub off speed. Things like corn fields, parking meters and parked cars are perfect for stopping a vehicle without causing injury. Even heavy objects can do the job, so long as you sideswipe them rather than take a direct frontal impact. The trick is to purposely hit these things, which can be difficult for drivers who are used to avoiding crashes at all costs.
The runaway car scenario is one which every parent should discuss with their young drivers, and those who may take rides from younger drivers. As with so many things, a few well placed words today, may someday make all the difference in the world.
For more on this topic, check out this Car and Driver post: How to Deal With Unintended Acceleration
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