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Notes From The Road

Life with Unintended Acceleration
By Joe Hollingsworth/

Foot in Mouth
Twice I've been a ride-along instructor in performance driving events when drivers made identical errors. Here's one: Coming into a hairpin corner on the student's first lap, I sensed the car wasn't slowing adequately, so I instructed: "Brake." The car exhibited little slowing. In such a pressure situation, some students' minds are about as quick as a 1986 Tandy 1000 computer, so I shouted: "Slow down! Stop! Push on the brake!" The student yelled back "I AM!" ('I am' WHAT? I wanted to shout.) But the car continued rolling along. We bounced off the road and into the grass. We weren't accelerating but we weren't slowing much either. Suspecting the cause of the problem, I looked down at his left leg. His foot was firmly planted on the clutch. "You're pushing the clutch," said I. The driver initially denied it but then looked down before he admitted that he was pushing the wrong pedal. Sometimes this pedal misapplication works the other way: The driver pounds the brake when he really wants the clutch. This is an unwelcome surprise for not only the driver and passengers, but for anyone following close behind. (Racers learning to left-foot brake are susceptible to this error.)
Far more common, panicked drivers plant the gas instead of the brake. I don't watch every driver's feet (I'm susceptible to motion sickness), but I've seen enough to know that a large percentage initially push the gas to the floor. Yet, when I say, "Brake!" they correctly switch over to the brake.
During another high-performance driving event, I had a long argument with a driver, a graduate of the biggest racing school, over which pedal she was pushing. As she lost control and the car spun out, I slipped the transmission into neutral: Pedal misapplication is far from uncommon in these events. (They don't pay me enough.) The exchange went like this: Me: "Brake." Driver: "I AM braking." Background noise: Engine screaming at top rpm. "You're on the gas." "No, I'm braking!" Background noise: Engine bouncing against its rev limiter. The car came to rest and I said, "Get off the gas." "I'm not on the gas!" she insisted. "Hear the engine?" "Oh."
Driving Tips
How can you avoid becoming a victim of unintended acceleration? First, do the simple stuff. Check the pedal placement any time you drive a new (to you) car. Make sure floormats are properly fitted and there are no loose items that could block the brake pedal. Avoid overly wide or heavy footwear to prevent simultaneously pressing gas and brake. (When I am required to wear steel-toe shoes, I make certain I avoid collecting both gas and brake.) Get all the way in the car before moving it, and insist that parking lot valets and car wash attendants do so when moving your car. If you notice the throttle sticking, the cruise control acting up, the shift interlock isn't working, or the brakes are aging, get the car to a mechanic immediately.
Next, prepare for the unexpected. Humans rarely do the correct thing when they face emergencies for which they haven't prepared. In fact, they react a lot like deer blinded by headlights. If you don't practice the proper procedure, it's unlikely you'll take effective action. Think about what you'd do if your car began to accelerate unexpectedly. Develop a race-driver mentality: If "A" doesn't work, try "B." If "B" fails, try "C." if "C" doesn't help, try "D." Race drivers don't give up until well after all hope is lost.
If the car is accelerating and you believe you're pressing on the brake, release the pedal you're pushing, move your foot to the left and try again. If that doesn't work, press the brake with both feet: It's difficult to get both feet on the accelerator. Try pumping the brake pedal in an effort to develop brake pressure. If you hear the engine sound rising and falling as you pump, check again for the pedal to its left. If it's a manual-transmission car, try braking with your right foot.
Next, practice moving the shift lever to neutral: In some cars (especially automatics with a center-mounted shifter) it's very easy to slap it into Neutral. Some manufacturers' design prevents the selection of Reverse or Park without pressing a button. Other configurations (especially column-mounted shifters) make it more difficult select Neutral: Try it in your vehicle. In manual transmission-equipped cars, press the clutch at the first hint of unintended acceleration. In both cases, modern engine-speed (a.k.a. rev) limiters will prevent motor damage. (While you're doing this make triple certain you're pushing the brake and only the brake.)
If none of this works, switch the ignition off. Most recent cars prevent you from locking the steering without putting the car in Park. Practice while motionless and then again at very low speed before an emergency. If all else fails, pull (or press) the emergency brake. Passengers in unintended acceleration emergencies can also act fruitfully: Slip the shifter into neutral, switch off the ignition, yank the parking brake.
Whoa, Nellie
Allow me to finish with a story related to me by my old-time driver instructors: The student was learning to drive relatively late in life. Progress was being made. But then the new driver encountered an unexpected obstacle. Rather than pushing the brake pedal, the driver did what was natural to him and what he'd practiced all his life: He shouted "Whoa. Whoa. Whoa." and pulled back on the steering wheel as if he were pulling his mules' reins. While the farmer's animals would have responded to those commands, the Ford Model A he was learning to drive didn't and he wound up in the ditch. It was among the first cases of pedal misapplication.

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