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Life with Unintended AccelerationNotes From The Road

Life with Unintended Acceleration
By Joe Hollingsworth/

Don't Step on the Gas Unless You Mean It -

News Item: A woman, who was driving a neighbor's car, crashed into her own house, through the kitchen, out the back, across the yard, through the fence, across the alley and into a ditch. "It accelerated and the brakes wouldn't work," she said.

Been There. Done That.
Well, sort of. Similar to that unfortunate driver, I have pushed the wrong pedal—more than once. It can happen to anyone. The only difference is that prior to my incident, I'd practiced corrective actions, so it didn't end expensively.
Instead of pushing the gas when I wanted the brake, I got the clutch instead of the brake. Also, several times I've been a riding instructor in high-performance driving events when students pushed the gas in the mistaken—but unshakable—belief they were on the brake. And, I witnessed an accident where a car accelerated wildly from a stop into another vehicle and then a telephone pole: Her brake lights never illuminated. I've experienced my share of unintended acceleration, which is also known as sudden or unanticipated acceleration, or pedal misapplication.
Don't fret that your car might develop a mind of its own and accelerate wildly despite your best efforts to stop it: In a modern, properly maintained passenger vehicle, the brakes easily overpower the engine. I've proven this in hundreds of vehicles, from Corollas to Corvettes. Unintended acceleration complaints fell dramatically when carmakers installed brake/transmission inter-locks, devices that require the driver to push the brake pedal before automatic transmission cars can be shifted out of Park.
Double Entendre
But what if the car is already in motion? Certainly, accelerators can stick open for a number of reasons: Misplaced floor mats, a broken engine mount, and an improperly installed racecar throttle cable have allowed me to experience the fright of stuck throttles. There's another cause: Drivers mistakenly pushing the gas instead of the brake. It can happen to anyone, but my experience says it's more common if you're driving an unfamiliar vehicle. Being stressed, fatigued, or distracted are also contributing factors. Also, braking systems can fail, but I've never seen or heard of one that healed itself. The common thread in unintended acceleration accidents is the fact that the driver swears he was pushing on the brake pedal for all his might, but the braking system worked perfectly immediately after the accident.
Here's a pedal misapplication mea culpa. After a long day of performance testing vehicles for a car magazine, I was headed home in one of the subject cars. I was exhausted and dehydrated. To slow for a freeway interchange I went for the brake with my left foot. (Like the vast majority of race drivers, I brake with my left foot at least some of the time.) A shot of adrenaline went through my body when the pedal went straight to the floor. My racing experience kicked in and I pumped the pedal in an effort to offset what I incorrectly assessed was a loss of hydraulic pressure. (I also disparaged the other test driver's heritage for not telling me he'd burned out the brakes.) After three rapid, but fruitless, cycles of the pedal, I came to the embarrassing assessment: This was the manual-transmission variant of the vehicle, not the automatic. (We had tested both that day.) I was pushing the clutch, not the brake. I moved over to the middle pedal. That did a lot better job of slowing the car.

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