By on April 22, 2013

I recently watched a rather disturbing YouTube video. In it, a Toyota Highlander is seen terrorizing a quiet suburb, not unlike a kid with a loud exhaust on his car, or worse: a neighbor who hasn’t mowed his lawn for a few weeks.

For those of you who are at work and can’t watch the video, I’ll sum it up for you: a security camera shows a Highlander pulling up to a quiet home in the kind of suburb where covenants say your bricks can be one of three highly distinct colors: light brown (which the builder probably calls something like “Stable Hay Cream”), dark brown (“Mojave Bronze”), or – for the uncultured among us – normal brown (“Sahara Sand”).

The Highlander slowly pulls into a driveway, and then quickly accelerates to attack the garage door. Then it backs out into the street and lunges forward once again, slamming into the garage door a second time. Finally, it reverses into the street again and does a wild J-turn that looks more realistic than any car-related scene in the last four James Bond movies.

The video’s description, which blames a stuck accelerator pedal, says the driver is a woman who was picking up teenage girls for a carpool. When Autoblog posted the story, their astute commenters – who use names like Johnny Trailerpark and PICKLEBOY (yes, with the caps) – needed to hear no more. This is a sample of several highly sophisticated remarks from the Autoblog comment section:

1. It’s a woman that got confused. It happens :)
2. I only see a foolish woman behind the wheel.
3. 100 bucks it was a woman driver
4. Attacking the house of the woman cheating with her husband?

I’ve never really bought into the “women are horrible drivers” thing. This is because many of my worst on-road experiences have been with men, who say things like “watch this” significantly more often than they use their turn signals. Recently, for example, I crashed a Panamera into a guy who was trying to make an illegal left turn across seven lanes of traffic. In the rain. At night. His excuse, quite memorably, was: “I didn’t see you.” If only my car had been Stable Hay Cream.

My Theory

Once I rejected the “it’s a woman, so she must be at fault” theory, I started to come around to the stuck accelerator explanation of events. There were two reasons for this. One is obvious: Toyota recently had highly-publicized problems with stuck accelerator pedals. This led them to recall every single model since the 1979 Corona, plus a few thousand Power Wheels children’s toys and dozens of wheeled drink carts.

The other thing that convinced me the driver wasn’t at fault is the simple reality of what’s shown in the video. Consider it: first, she hits the garage door in Drive. Then she takes her foot off the gas, places it on the brake, moves the gear lever into Reverse, and backs up. Then she takes her foot back off the gas, places it on the brake again, moves the gear lever back into Drive, and hits the garage door a second time. Finally, she does the very same thing again, resulting in the J-Turn. With so many switches between the gas and brakes, it could be intentional – but it can’t be pedal misapplication.

To confirm my analysis, I sent the video to a friend who is a highly competent attorney in the automotive industry. Actually, I don’t know if he’s highly competent, but I believe he must be since he often uses words like “pursuant.”

His view on the video was very much the same as mine. But he had one question: do you need to push the Highlander’s brake to move the gear lever from Drive to Reverse? If you can move the gear lever without pushing the brake, the driver is probably at fault, since she was moving the lever while mashing the gas. But if you have to push the brake to move the gear lever, then she couldn’t have been pushing the throttle. In that case, the culprit was probably a vehicle malfunction – or an intentional act.

The Test

Since I’ve driven many of today’s finest automatics, and also a few Fiat 500s, I was pretty sure that you have to push the brake to shift from Drive to Reverse. But since I’m committed to bringing you the finest automotive journalism on the planet, as long as I don’t have to change out of my pajamas, I decided to find out for sure. This would involve my friend Mark, who is also an attorney, though he rarely uses the word “pursuant.” To make up for it, he has a beard.

More importantly, he has a four-cylinder Toyota Highlander. While this causes a problem on hills and highway onramps, it would be perfect for my test. So I called Mark, and our conversation went something like this:

Me: Hey, man. Can I come over?
Mark: Uh, dude. It’s noon on a weekday. I’m at work.
Me: But I need to test the Highlander!
Mark: You’re wearing your pajamas, aren’t you?

Mark and I eventually made plans to meet up on Sunday, when we would test the Highlander in his driveway. And guess what? You can shift from Drive to Reverse without pushing the brake. You can also shift from Reverse to Drive. In fact, you can shift from Drive to Park without pushing the brake, and Neutral to Drive, and Low to Neutral. Basically, you can move the gear lever from any gear to any other gear while your feet just dangle out the window.

In other words, the driver in the video was probably jamming the gas while she was shifting gears. There’s no stuck throttle here. Just a very angry homeowner with a driveway full of Sahara Sand bricks.

Doug DeMuro operates He’s owned an E63 AMG wagon, road-tripped across the US in a Lotus without air conditioning, and posted a six-minute lap time on the Circuit de Monaco in a rented Ford Fiesta. One year after becoming Porsche Cars North America’s youngest manager, he quit to become a writer. His parents are very disappointed.

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60 Comments on “Verdict: Operator Error...”

  • avatar

    Uh, wasted analysis really. Needing to step on the brake or not to shift is irrelevant.

    Not only was the Toyota “unintended acceleration” proven to be 100% driver error, not only are cars’ control systems designed such that it is statically impossible for such a throttle failure to occur, no car in the history of cars has ever shifted itself from forward to reverse multiple times w/full application of throttle.

    • 0 avatar

      Not wasted if it proves that the woman could have done it without removing her foot from the “brake” pedal snuggled into the right side of the footwell.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree it ended up being wasted analysis, but one could argue that’s true of virtually everything I write. The key here is she never claimed the car was shifting itself- she actually said that was the only outlet she had to control the car. She admitted she was making the gear changes.

      • 0 avatar

        This internets was wasted. Please return them.

      • 0 avatar

        Then why didn’t she try neutral, or better yet, this funny little setting called “Park”?! It was either intentional, or she had temporary sypmtoms of severe wichwayitis where the left and right foot suddenly and mysteriously switch ankles.

        • 0 avatar

          It’s a Toyota. From Doug’s story, it’s the typical Toyota staggered gate. Which means you don’t have to press a button to shift into reverse from Drive, and Park is a few zigzags to the side. If you panic and try to shove the car into Neutral from Drive, the gear stick will not stop at Neutral, it’ll fly into reverse before being stopped by the turn going towards park. Same thing with shoving back down… then up… then down…

          I’ve actually seen this happen, some twenty years ago. Driver surges forward (while sitting in traffic), foot flat to the floor on the accelerator… panics… shoves it through neutral straight into reverse… then back into drive (foot still flat to the floor) then into reverse…

          Of course, that driver was a man… so out goes the PMS theory.

          • 0 avatar

            Exactly right. The gear lever goes right past neutral into reverse BUT it takes actual effort to move into Park (you have to push it to the right, around a stop they’ve put in).

          • 0 avatar

            So, the great question is why have the staggered, zig-zag gate pattern? I’ve never considered it a positive.

            I still would gladly have a pattern like:
            because I think it’s dumb to put the car in reverse (as when putting it in park) when you do not intend to actually back up. I also could support a push-down or pull-up feature to prevent such accidental shifts.

          • 0 avatar
            Buzz Killington

            No; it will stop at N if you shove it forward from D. You need to push to the right to get around the stop between N and R. Same with going from R to D; you need to pull it to the left to get past N. Mazdas have a very similar pattern, and pushing straight forward or pulling straight backwards will result only in R–N or N–D, never R–D.

            Otherwise you could have a car moving along at 25mph in D suddenly get shoved into reverse when, say, the passenger turns around to yell at the kids.

            The reason for the zig-zag gate is so that you can put the car in gear without having to count detents or look at the gear selector. I thought it was weird until we got a car with that design; it’s much more intuitive to use.

          • 0 avatar

            Another reason why the best pattern looks like this


          • 0 avatar

            Having driven cars with stepped auto transmission sticks, the slight left-right movement is not exactly effective for the task. The button method (free shifting between N & D without button, but it’s required to put into R) does solve those problems–and more effectively, IMO.

            Also transmissions are supposed to have a safety feature that prevents them from being engaged when the vehicle is moving. Mythbusters tried to shift into R on a couple cars & found that at speed they couldn’t. Obviously, you can at slow speeds, and I have no idea when such safeguards kick in.

          • 0 avatar


            Right on Brother!

          • 0 avatar

            I’ve driven several Toyotas with the stepped gates. When you’re panicking and pushing the lever away from you, (and kinematics dictate that pushing away is often diagonally forward), the slight kink to get to reverse is negligble.

            It’s poor ergonomics. If, for example, you use a reverse-Y gate, with P at he top, D on the lower left and R on the lower right, people would never accidentally put the car into Reverse.

            It’s the same hundred year old poor ergonomics that puts the brake pedal right beside the gas pedal. Makes more sense to put the clutch in the center, thus making any pedal misapplication result in losing drive instead of going through the nearest 7/11 window.

          • 0 avatar
            TwoTone Loser

            I’m surprised the car even shifted at all. On a modern car, at least the ones I tested at the shop, if your engine rpm is above a certain amount, you can move the stick from neutral to any gear you choose and the trans simply does not engage. The Chevy trucks and Fords worked this way, I thought all of them did by now.

            I did have an unintended acceleration in a 2010 model navigator at the dealership I worked for, the general managers wifes car. Gas pedal got stuck under the floor mat old school style. The AWD bit down without hardly a chirp and the 310 horses propelled it forward very effectively. I threw it in reverse(not the original plan), and got it stopped in less than 50 feet while negotiating a turn in a tightly packed lot. It just sat there, revving, in reverse, motionless. I pulled the mat back, and it dropped back to idle speed, and the trans then shifted to reverse.

            It was kinda scary. I’m telling you, but I had stopped it by the front doors of the service department. It there was anybody there, they would have been flattened.

      • 0 avatar

        So she could change gear. She didn’t even contemplate – just for a fraction of a second – that park might have been a better idea then drive or reverse? Does driving an automatic make you retarded?

      • 0 avatar

        She could have tried, you know, the brakes…or maybe park, instead of shuffling like a complete moron between reverse and drive. I refuse to believe anyone is that stupid, but hey you never know.

  • avatar

    Ok, women aren’t all bad drivers. My girlfriend is a very good driver. But we all gotta admit that her driving skills had to be atrocious for this to happen, unless she did it on purpose. It simply does not help the stereotype.

  • avatar
    juicy sushi

    Entirely operator error I think. She got confused, failed to stop and hit the house. Then panicked, screamed and mashed the “brake” [gas] and the rest of the carnage ensued. If there was telemetry of the incident, it would have shown she never took her foot off the gas the whole time, I’d wager.

  • avatar

    Toyota says that the Event Data Recorder shows that the driver never tried to apply the brakes.

    From Autoblog:

    “Following this crash, which took place back in November, Toyota had this Highlander inspected and pulled data from its Event Data Recorder (EDR), or Black Box as we’ve come to call it. Not only was this the first time we’ve seen a claim of unintended acceleration like this caught on video, but now, also a first, we have actual data showing what the vehicle itself recorded during this frightening ordeal.

    Brian Lyons, Toyota Communications Manager for Safety and Quality, first gave us some information about the Highlander in question, including the fact that it was a 2012 model. The 2012 Highlander came from the factory with a brake override system, meaning it was not part of the company’s initiative in 2010 to add the system to all 2011 models. Also, after looking at the data from the EDR, he said – as many of you pointed out in the comments for the previous post – that the “brake pedal was never touched.” In the video, you can see that the crossover’s brake lights never come on, and the EDR’s data backs this up.

    The data pulled from the EDR – posted in the gallery below as two images – shows the two “events,” which were recorded each time the vehicle impacted the house. In the first event, the data provided by Toyota shows that 3.6 seconds before the impact, the vehicle began to slow down before speeding up to almost 15 miles per hour as it slammed into the house. In the second event, which resulted in a more violent collision with the house, the Highlander reached speeds of almost 30 mph with the engine racing at 4,400 rpm. In both images, it shows that the brake switch was in the “OFF” position the entire time, indicating that the driver was not attempting to press the brake. We asked Toyota if a faulty brake switch would cause the data to show the brake switch “off” and not allow the brake override to operate properly, and Lyons said no. Plus, there is a hard physical connection from the brake pedal to the brakes themselves, so an electrical fault couldn’t have kept them from functioning.”

    • 0 avatar

      Looking at the event data I see .86 tps at over 3,000 rpms and something crazy like 5-30 in 2 seconds.

      I wish Autoblog/Toyota had a full transcript of the senario. Does traction work by ABS or closing thr throttle, or both? At what speeds?

      The Toyota response is fishy and very quick.

      • 0 avatar

        The Toyota response isn’t as quick as you think- apparently this happened quite some time ago, and the video is only surfacing now. Toyota apparently responded last year.

      • 0 avatar

        I’m not familiar with this particular system but most modern traction control systems use both the ABS and someway to reduce power, with modern electric throttles that usually means closing said throttle. Most modern traction control systems are billed as all speed, so anytime the vehicle is moving.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m sorry but “We asked Toyota if a faulty brake switch would cause the data to show the brake switch “off” and not allow the brake override to operate properly, and Lyons said no. Plus, there is a hard physical connection from the brake pedal to the brakes themselves, so an electrical fault couldn’t have kept them from functioning.” just isn’t entirely true. Yes there is a mechanical connection from the brake pedal to the master cylinder however if the switch the computer uses to see if the brake pedal is applied is not functioning how is the computer going to know that the driver is applying the brakes. Now I haven’t looked at a wiring diagram so it is possible that there are redundant switches meaning the failure of one by itself would not disable the system. I’ve seen a fair number of Corollas from when they first started the brake/shift interlock where the brake light switch failed and then you could not move the shifter out of park. Don’t get me wrong I do believe it was “operator error” in this case, but a failure of the switch(es) the operate the brake override would result in the brake override not working.

  • avatar

    Odd, everywhere I drive in the Mason-Dixon line the majority of the time my issues with poor driving on the streets are women on their smartphones. Because you know, sharing that recipie or eCard with some horrible Marilyn Monroe saying is more important.

    • 0 avatar

      In the Mason-Dixon line? Maybe on, or north or south of the line. What did you mean?

    • 0 avatar

      So true!! Guys never do anything idiotic like using their smartphones to share a sports score or forward a dopey mass e-mail with some hackneyed Vince Lombardi saying. Yep, it’s those darn women causing all the problems.

  • avatar

    She had to be on a cocktail of Zoloft, Prozack and StarBucks.

    But that’s the best J-turn I’ve seen since the “Rockford Files”! She went for the brakes and found the gas pedal. Crash! Next she went for “P” and found “R”. Then she thought, ‘hmmmm… If it’s not UP, then it’s DOWN..’ Changes direction, Crash! ‘OK, UP???’… J-turn, then it stalls when she slams the curb. She was ready for the next round.

  • avatar

    Reminds me of this video:

    Somebody gets stupid, hits the wrong pedal, and then compounds the error by panicking.

  • avatar

    Why did the driver back out into the street and then accelerate again? If somehow the car was at fault the first time, and I was able to get it in reverse, I’m throwing it in park and getting the hell out of it.

    Looking at the video, it appears the driver *very* quickly switched from reverse to drive to come back in and hit the door… do these use some kind of weird transmission which could have malfunctioned? (CVT etc)

    • 0 avatar

      I have to admit this is the one part of the video in which I actually agree with the woman’s actions. Consider it: you’re pushing what you think is the brake and the car is still going full speed. Your next thought is “how do I not hit this house,” and your only recourse is the transmission lever. She should’ve put it in Neutral, obviously, but she was panicking.

    • 0 avatar

      Just bought my wife a highlander of a similar vintage, so I’ve been paying attention to this one. One thing that occurred to me was that staggered shift gate. As I’ve been getting used to occasionally driving her car, I’ve noticed that I sometimes struggle with the gear selector, trying to get it in the gear I want–sometimes finding neutral when I want reverse or some such thing. I find park difficult to select sometimes, too.

      Can’t help but wonder if during a panic situation, getting the gear selector hung up on the “steps” might have made it more difficult for her to get the thing in park. As for finding neutral, it can be easy to skip past it–especially when one is frantic while the car is seemingly out of control.

  • avatar

    when I first saw this video, my initial thought was “deliberate act.” really looks to me like someone was pissed off and tried to come up with a lame story after the fact.

    “Actually, I don’t know if he’s highly competent, but I believe he must be since he often uses words like “pursuant.””

    I gotta say, Doug, I like your writing style. kind of reminds me of Dave Barry.

  • avatar

    Anyone else this as the logical result of what I like to call The Insurance Society?

    What I mean is, mix mandatory insurance policies and “automotive safety technologies” with sentimentalism (“I was just so scared, Officer!” “It’s okay ma’am. Accidents happen.”) and obfuscating stupidity (“Did I do that? Soooorrryyy…”) and you end up with a world where everyone is so insulated from reality that no one has any concept of actions leading to consequences.

    If you do something irresponsible, thoughtless and destructive, just play dumb and your insurance will cover everything. Just act scared, and The System will let you off with a There, There, It’ll Be Alright.

    And nothing will ever be your fault.

  • avatar

    She probably just really wanted a Durango–in Stable Hay Cream.

  • avatar

    That is one pissed-off woman…. everything else is just plain BS

  • avatar

    One possible factor I haven’t heard discussed before is the role obesity may play in these occurrences. An estimated 25 million U.S. citizens have type 2 diabetes, with peripheral neuropathy of the extremities being a very common symptom of the condition. From professional experience I know that people in an advanced stage often cannot feel injuries or wounds to their feet.

    The thought has crossed my mind more than once that taking a hopeful, numb stab where the pedals should be cannot be a very safe way to drive.

  • avatar

    Tinfoil hat on:

    Driver mistook gas for brake on the first hit. After wrecking the Highlander her husband just bought her, she panicked and decided to make it look like UA by going ful throttle and ramming the house again.

  • avatar

    My thoughts:
    Consider the fact that she slows waaaay down before pulling into the driveway. The vehicle behind her actually honks and drives around her. You can see she wasn’t using her blinker, either. I’m led to believe she was distracted as she pulled in. A distracted person is much more likely to do something brainless (like push the accelerator instead of the brake).

    Also- If you look at the video on youtube, you can read it was posted by her husband who states; “My wife was only able to control the car with the PRNDL – 3 teenage girls in the car with her and just pulling into a neighbor’s driveway to pick-up during carpool!”

    If this was the situation, do you think the woman would EVER admit to having done something so stupid (threatening the lives of her kids and destroying her neighbors house)? No way; she will go to her grave claiming the car was at fault.

  • avatar

    My own sainted Mother managed to put my Stepfather’s brand-new ’77 Grand Prix through the back wall of the garage and into the back yard when I was in the 2nd grade. Was springtime, her shoe soles were sandy and her foot slipped off the brake onto the gas. And of course because she THOUGHT her foot was on the brake, when the car lurched forwards she pressed harder and that big V8 did the rest. No cell phones or other distractions, she was alone in the car other than being ~8.5mo pregnant with my brother. Car was repaired, as was garage, they kept it for about 15 years and 300K+. He loved that car.

    She is STILL a terrible driver, but you can only do so much damage with a Prius-V.

    • 0 avatar

      The difference now is that people can’t admit it is their own fault when they make a mistake. Cars aren’t supposed to go when you floor the gas pedal if that’s not what you want them to do.

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    It’s obvious she never watched a demolition derby, otherwise she would have backed into the house, thus not disabling the engine or the radiator and causing more damage.

  • avatar
    Mazda Monkey

    This video is also evidence of the superior durability and handling ability of the Toyota Highlander.

    If you want to take advantage of its speed and grace. I have a great four cylinder available. Great car if you don’t live in a really hilly area. Willing to trade for a low mileage Ferrari 360 (manual, of course) or a 1991 Mazda Rx-7 with a LS7 swap.

  • avatar

    What does it take for the airbags to operate? The second bash was a good one!

    The howling wheelspin from the time reverse was first engaged until the vehicle finally stops would probably account for the “30” mph reading on the second crash. No way 30 was achieved in reality. This was obviously not an AWD Highlander.

    What was the traction control up to during this sequence? Highlanders in snow with the nanny traction control just sit there looking stupid after a modest bit of wheelspin, after which the power gets cut.

    This type of gate for the shift lever was invented by Mercedes, and copied immediately by the cheap makes. My Subaru has a similar gate to the one pictured. You have to think about it to get Reverse from Drive, and it can slide right past R to the P horizontal slot if you manhandle things by giving a big panicky push to the right and up to get by N.

    Pretty weird. Gotta love that Toyota V6 power and howling rubber though.

  • avatar

    “Basically, you can move the gear lever from any gear to any other gear while your feet just dangle out the window.”

    Operator error in the form of pedal misapplication, made worse by freaking out after the first impact. But, the goofy jagged-gate shift lever is a design flaw on Toyota’s part. I’m sure that saves them a few cents over one with a switch you must press to shift out of park or from neutral to reverse.

  • avatar

    Did this lady even see the video? Her brake lights were OFF the whole time. Never mind the Highlander hardly has the power to overcome light brake pressure (from a stop). Let alone spin the tires.

  • avatar

    Surprised that no one asked about the Panamera crash… Any good stories out of that one? How bad was the damage?

  • avatar

    This is so much fun!

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