Unintended acceleration and driver error.

Below is a letter to the editor from today’s Wall Street Journal that I think provides an important perspective on unintended acceleration.

Allegations of  UA and the media furor around it virtually destroyed Audi in the United States.  Audi was vindicated eventually, with UA and the unfortunate accidents associated with it attributed to driver error.

Toyota is now “in the barrel”  with the politicians and media all intimating that there is some sinister plot at work.  There’s a lot at stake.  If there have been genuine misdeeds then let’s prove it beyond a question of a doubt and hold Toyota responsible. If indeed, driver error was the issue, I hope that the media and our politicians will be as quick to acknowledge the fact as they have been to hoist Toyota on its petard.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below and here’s the letter:

“Holman Jenkins is 100% correct in “Trial Lawyers vs. Toyota” (Business World, Feb. 26).

I taught at BSR Advanced Driver Training at Summit Point Raceway in West Virginia for about 20 years, teaching counterterrorism, motorcades, racing, high performance driving and car control techniques. Almost invariably, unintended acceleration was a major problem caused by the driver thinking he is on the brake rather than the gas in an emergency situation. His foot is planted firmly on the gas and his brain is firmly in panic mode and therefore his brain function is zero.

As far as braking, many drivers come completely off the brakes when the ABS kicks in since the perception is that something is wrong with the brakes. Also, many drivers do not brake hard enough.

The majority of accidents are caused by the driver, not the vehicle. In America we teach drivers to pass the driver’s test, not how to drive a car. We want a risk-free world and we’re not going to get it.

Toyota’s problems are more examples of the power of suggestion and mass hysteria then they are of faulty electronics.

Yes, things can go wrong mechanically, but that is very rare, and most of the time it is the driver’s fault. However, we rarely take the blame or the responsibility when we do something wrong; it’s blame the other guy and sue.

The press, politicians and public are all blaming Toyota for faulty equipment, yet there is plenty a driver can do when faced with an emergency. Most drivers really aren’t that skilled. Airline pilots are required to practice emergency maneuvers every six months, yet driving is far more dangerous than flying. Most drivers have no clue about what to do when something does go wrong. How frequently does the average driver practice for emergency situations?

As another driving instructor has said, “A meteorite hitting your car is an ‘accident,’ everything else is driver error.”

Miriam Schottland




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9 Responses to “Unintended acceleration and driver error.”

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  5. Watt D. Fjark says:

    John McElroy had a comment about the UA and the age of the driver–the older the driver, the greater likelihood of an incident.

    But that’s almost worse than admitting a defect in the vehicle–does Toyota want it discussed that their average driver’s age is uncomfortably close to a Buick driver’s?

  6. Cameron says:

    Thanks for this link Harvey, it’s all over the news this morning. I can’t remember whether UA for Audi was limited to shifting instances or not. I do know that as a result of the Audi allegations the mechanism that requires the driver to have his foot on the brake while shifting in and out of gear was developed and deployed.

    While eerily similar in some respects to Audi, the Toyota situation is quite different. The extraordinary use of electronics in today’s automobiles is making this incredibly hard to diagnose and of course the internet makes crisis management more of a challenge.

    That said, history and experience leads many to conclude that eventually driver error will be the major culprit.

  7. When I attended Skip Barber’s advanced driving course, we were told that in most accidents people used 40% of a car’s capability and then gave up. So I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the Toyota claims are due to driver error.

    What makes this different from Audi is these events appear to occur while on the road. As I recall the Audi UI happened when going from park into gear and was ultimately due to a pedal placement issue.

    If the most recent cases are true, Toyota’s problems will not be going away any time soon… http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/runaway-toyotas-listen-911-tape-94-mph-san/story?id=10057602

  8. Cameron says:

    Keith, thanks so much for commenting. More seems to be coming to light on David Gilbert’s research. I don’t mean to diminish the concerns over product issues, they need to be exhaustively researched and analyzed. That said, human error is by far the greatest cause of accidents and it seems to get very little airtime in the “conversation” about Toyota (or an other UA issue). I don’t want to let Toyota or any other manufacturer off the hook, but at the same time these products are extraordinarily safe and that seems to be lost in the public discussion.

  9. While I agree that driver error is common, and with the comment on onfusion (check the investigation of a car careening through a market in California, witnesses did not see the brake lights come on at any time), there are omissions in Schottland’s letter.

    First, Audi did have a problem of idle speed going high due to a failure of a part. If the driver put the vehicle in drive without having foot on brake good practice, it would move smartly.

    Second, there is a trap in using brakes to stop a runaway vehicle – if you pump the brakes per traditional practive you’ll deplete vacuun which is low when the engine is at high speed.

    Third, there is the lack of brake over-ride of engine in Toyota vehicles.

    Finally, I note the as yet unverified to my knowledge finding of David Gilbert that there is a failure mode in Toyta’s design. Whether or not the probability of it is signficant it contradicts Toyota’s clams thus is very damaging to their credibility.

    There is a need for driver education – some reports from Toyota owners reveal that many drivers do not understand the Neutral function of an AT – in one case a passenger had to tell the driver to shift into neutral.

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