By on January 4, 2009

There are all sorts of end of the year automotive lists. The ten best this and the ten worst that. My favorite list is not a car gong per se. The Darwin Awards are given to those who improve the gene pool by removing themselves from it. As you might imagine, automobiles figure prominently in this roll call of death by stupidity. To wit: Ivece Plattner of Italy. Plattner was driving a Porsche Cayenne (which is already a bit of a red flag), stuck in traffic on a railroad crossing, waiting for the light to turn green. When the crossing barriers came down, they trapped the Cayenne.

Onlookers said he didn’t realize he was stuck until the train was approaching. In desperation he opened the door and jumped out of the car. Instead of getting out of Dodge, Plattner started running up the tracks, in the train’s path, waving his arms and screaming. The engineer hit the brakes, but inertia and momentum working the way they do, the train hit the Porschephile and threw him about 100 ft. Plattner was survived by his Porsche Cayenne, which he loved more than life itself.

In a story from the Talmud (tractate Shabbat 31a), a potential convert approached the great rabbi Hillel and asked him to sum up the Torah “on one foot.” Hillel replied “what’s distasteful to you don’t do to your neighbor, that’s the entire Torah, the rest is commentary, go and learn.” Too bad a couple of ranch hands on a lonely country road hadn’t learned that lesson…

The telephone company had been burying lines. To allow traffic to pass, they dug up half the road at a time and put up warning barriers with flashing lights to direct traffic to the safe side. After they laid the cable half way, they’d fill in that side and then do the same on the other side. Pranksters had moved the flashing lights to the good side of the road.

Speeding late at night and way over the legal blood alcohol limit, the ranch hands drove straight into the hole and died. Because of the moved lights the Sheriff’s accident analysis turned into a criminal matter. Crime scene analysis of tire tracks and footprints on the dirt road revealed that the pranksters were the ranch hands themselves, on their way to the bar. 

I don’t think that rabbi Hillel would have put it this way, but payback’s a bitch. The next automotive Darwin award also involves a pickup truck, this time pressed into service as a winch.

It seems that someone had cut down a fairly large tree at the base of an embankment. For some reason, instead of just tying a cable to the tree and his hitch and pulling the tree up the slope he decided to use his rear axle as a winch. He jacked up the truck and replaced one tire with a bare rim he had in the bed hoping to wind the cable on the rim as it spun. He went over to the cab and had one foot on the gas and another on the ground, with the door open, so he could observe his handy work. He put it into gear, hit the gas and the truck lurched back, swinging the door on him and trapping him as the truck went down the embankment.

[From an automotive standpoint, this Darwin may be the most interesting. The Darwin Awards are based on submissions and votes at their web site and there’s a forum where people can discuss the different stories. This one generated a long and interesting thread on differentials, friction and torque.]

The final automotive Darwin Award for 2008 involves a dangerous combination: young males with a SUV, a shopping cart and a passionate desire to do something they saw on an internet video.

Cameron Bieberle, an 18-year-old Winter Park, Florida man decided to take a ride in a shopping cart, hanging on to his friend’s SUV as it drove through their apartment complex parking lot. While speed bumps are but a nuisance to a SUV, shopping cart suspensions have a bit less wheel travel. Bieberle was bounced from the cart and landed on the pavement headfirst. DOA.

With car sales so deep in the toilet that Toyota and Honda are both losing money, while the domestics live hand-to-mouth on government subsidy, it’s nice to know that there are still worse ways to mess up with cars than running a car company. As they used to say on Hill Street Blues, be careful out there. Or, the gene pool you save may be your own.

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32 Comments on “Automotive Darwin Awards 2008...”

  • avatar

    His axle as a winch? Why would anyone? Wow. Its hard to believe anyone would bother going through all the extra trouble that would require when they could just pull the tree up the embankment. Even if it wouldn’t have killled him he would have desreved recongnition for remarkable stupidity of some type.

  • avatar

    Law of very large numbers. In a population of 305 million (US), it’s absolutely inevitable that a few people will do some incredibly stupid things.

    What an unusual and marvelous perspective–cars and Judaic law–through which to view the Darwin Awards.

  • avatar

    The axle-as-a-winch idea actually sounds feasible at first glance. How interesting…LOL!

  • avatar

    My sarcastic, curmudgeon, fellow-human hater self always gets a real good kick from the Darwin awards…

    Thanks for sharing!

  • avatar

    Let’s say you’re employed by a former Eastern bloc long haul transport company.

    Let’s say your company specializes in landing lowest bid contracts.

    Let’s say they make a profit by exploiting low wages and slacker maintenance requirements.

    Let’s say your long haul rig enters Scandinavia with tires that are spit-shine smooth.

    Cue calamity, disaster and catastrophe as the roads of Scandinavia, in winter, present the drivers with various challenges – ensuing from the relationship between promised delivery ETA and insufficient traction.

    It’s Russian Roulette – and clearly a Darwin Awards category of its own.

  • avatar

    Have you ever changed out a flat tire while parked on a steep incline?

    Personally, I wouldn’t try this axle-as-a-winch trick, even with the front of the truck secured with chains to a couple of firmly planted trees further uphill.

  • avatar

    I suprised no one managed to kill themselves Ghost-Riding in the past year.

  • avatar

    In high school I partook in stupid things that surely would’ve made this list had someone died. I guess we were smart(?) enough to go really slow when someone was in the shopping cart and never took turns when someone was inside it. I guess we all had a conscious because the shopping cart was always returned (at least pretty close). Of course, back then you could still do “drive-bys” with a super-soaker without fear of return fire being real bullets, and if you got caught, a stern verbal warning from law enforcement was the order of the day. Times have changed a lot since even the early 90’s!

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Working under a car supported only by a jack.
    Changing a flat tire on the edge of a busy roadside. These activities claim a few idjits every year. I see people changing flats on divided highways all the time. Often times within in site of an off ramp and the inevitable gas station. You can drive 20 miles or more on a flat if you have to.

  • avatar

    What an unusual and marvelous perspective–cars and Judaic law–through which to view the Darwin Awards.

    Well, there are some orthodox rabbis like Natan Slifkin that don’t have a problem with an old universe and the Diety working through natural selection.

    There’s another talmudic saying that he who saves a single life is as though he saved an entire world. I suppose that Darwin Award winners demonstrate some kind of corollary to that.

    BTW, David, speaking of Judaic law, I like the idea of your engine valve Chanukah menorah, though technically it’s not a kosher menorah because the lights all have to be separately visible (and on the same height) and mounting them in a circle like you did is problematic. Mount them on something straight, like a steering rack, and even my rabbi would approve. I’ve made at least a couple of menorahs with my welding/brazing torches. I did one out of brass that’s a model of the Western Wall/Kotel and plaza and uses glass globes for the flames. People look at it, say it’s beautiful and then tell me I should make them for sale. When I say, ok, how about $200? They change their minds. My personal favorite things to scavenge for menorahs are .38 bullet casings. They are perfectly sized for standard Chanukah candles and I think they’re appropriate in light of the military aspect of the events celebrated on that holiday. A friend of mine, when in the IDF and on exercises during Chanukah, used 25mm shell casings and diesel fuel.

  • avatar

    This is my pick for the winner:

  • avatar

    I love the Darwin Awards, even when they’re urban legends such as the yarn about the guy who strapped a JATO rocket to his Chevy …

  • avatar


    Just to be clear. The Darwin Awards site that you linked to says that the JATO story is an urban legend and that it’s been “Confirmed Bogus by Darwin URBAN LEGEND!”, lest people think that the DA folks are perpetuating a myth.

  • avatar

    The axle-winch reminds me of the scene from Predator when the guerillas are using a truck as a generator, only to have Arnie pop it off the blocks and send it careening into the base in a fireball of righteous action-film destruction.

  • avatar

    The gene pool is definitely the better off without these yo-yos. But the stories this year don’t come close to the all-time champs last year. Google: pick-up, Arkansas, froggers, fuses, and 22 cartridges. (Interestingly, that winner didn’t kill himself, but he effectively purged himself from the gene pool.)

  • avatar


    I think that might qualify as an Honorable Mention with the Darwin folks. This guy only got the job half done and he got an Honorable Mention:

  • avatar

    A great article… Made me think in some interesting ways…

    My ironic thought of the day:

    Rick Wagoner is the most qualified man to be president over the next four years. Barak should find a way to make him at least VP.

    GM is just a mirror image of the problems with the entire economy/federal governemtn and Rick has managed to avoid losing his job and bankruptcy against all odds.

  • avatar

    Although not current, I nominate this one for Hall of Fame status:

    In 2003, a 27 year-old French woman lost control of her car on a highway near Marseilles and crashed into a tree, seriously injuring her passenger and killing herself. As a commonplace road accident, this would not have qualified for a Darwin nomination, were it not for the fact that the driver’s attention had been distracted by her Tamagotchi key ring, which had started urgently beeping for food as she drove along. In an attempt to press the correct buttons to save the Tamagotchi’s life, the woman lost her own.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    The JATO Chevy maybe an urban legend but there was a You tube a while back of a Californian who put a jet engine into a new beetle. So its only a matter of time

  • avatar

    I guess that I am uncomfortable with the notion of deriving pleasure from another’s death.

    As a antidote to the Darwin awards, (which should probably be named the Calvinist Awards, since they perpetuate the myth that people get what they deserve – whereas Darwin’s theories were based on mutation and natural selection); I would offer the story by the Nobel prize winning novelist, Issac Bashevis Singer, titled “Gimpel the Fool.”

    In this story, a person who is considered and played for a fool ends up being more of a human being than those who found pleasure in his failures.

    We are all humans and all humans make mistakes. I can find no pleasure in the grizzly death of another person, even if he or she made a tragic miscalculation.

  • avatar

    Then don’t read it?

  • avatar

    No. I’ll read it. Just don’t read my comments?

  • avatar

    The one about the road being dug up to lay cable rings false to me – I’ve worked for power companies before, they don’t dig up roads to lay underground cable, they drill a hole and run cable directly underground without interfering with anything. It’s way too expensive to have to rebuild a road when you’re done.

    Also, willbodine, the .22 bullet used as a fuse is false – it’s on the DA site as an urban legend.

  • avatar

    Alsadius, I’ve worked in construction and we had trenching going on all the time. I’m sure there’s a time and a place for drilling though.

    The Cayenne one was my favorite (the ranch hands too). The others were sad – I hate mistakes like that to be paid for in blood, but running towards a train and falling into your own deadly trap aren’t mere oversights.

  • avatar

    Had a customer working alone on a Fiat X19. He was under the car supported only by a floor jack. The jack let go pinning this guys head between the floor and the suspension. When he regained consciousness (he is a one man operation) he was able to free himself by pumping the jack with his leg. When he was telling me this, he said “after the first time I NEVER THOUGHT THAT WOULD HAPPEN AGAIN>” !!!!

  • avatar

    Interesting…other than the vehicle in question not being mentioned in the telephone line burying story, the rest of them all involved trucks/SUVs. Was that intentional?

  • avatar

    I suprised no one managed to kill themselves Ghost-Riding in the past year.

    Someone did here; so, I’m sure it happened elsewhere as well.

  • avatar

    As a antidote to the Darwin awards, (which should probably be named the Calvinist Awards, since they perpetuate the myth that people get what they deserve – whereas Darwin’s theories were based on mutation and natural selection)

    In a just world people would always get what they deserved. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for some) this isn’t a just world. Also, I don’t see how this ideal is Calvinist. Calvin undoubtedly thought that people ultimately get what they deserve, but most likely after death, not in this world.

    Darwin makes perfect sense as a name. The idea that stupid people are removed from the gene pool fits in nicely with natural selection.

  • avatar

    Fair point, Lunbergh21. I actually wanted to retract that Calvinist point but it was too late.

    I think I was mainly referring to the way Calvinism attributes all events to part of God’s plan. So when he hear about people getting killed for doing stupid things we somehow want to believe they deserve it.

    Back to the Darwin thing, I don’t think having a car accident due to driving drunk necessarily cleans out the gene pool.

    I think Darwin would argue that someone who had a random mutatation that allowed him to safely drive drunk would be naturally selected to live. That person would not be any better in terms of the gene pool than the guy who can’t drive after one beer, unless we lived in an environment where people had to drive after drinking and that gene mutation gave him an advantage.

  • avatar

    About the tire as a winch, check here or here to see real (no pun intended) wheel winches.

    It does not detract from the ultimate stupidity of the award winner.

  • avatar


    It’s hard for me to argue over teh name as I don’t believe in “natural selection” (call me a heretic). But, I believe the only story where the winners were identified as drunk were the criminally stupid individuals who moved the barriers away from the trenching in the road. In the other events listed, the victims did not really deserve what they got, but in the case of the ranch hands, I think they did deserve what they got. They thought it would be funny to create a deadly situation and then paid for it with their own lives. Seems fair to me.

  • avatar

    Andy D: Changing a flat tire on the edge of a busy roadside.

    I have driven 20 miles on a flat and while it is possible just be sure that you have no other alternatives. It ruined the tire, the rim and soon after the wheel bearings failed.

    The situation was a hot summer day in southern Italy during the siesta hours (a great idea for coping with the summer heat). Tire went flat. Wasn’t much of a tire anymore anyhow with the cords showing through but I was young, dumb and making the most of everything. I stopped to change it but the spare was flat too – though new in appearance it did not contain air. An option that year? Drove home about 20 miles slowly and survived to tell about it.

    Tire remains were smoking!

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