By on October 22, 2015

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I recently did something stupid that put me in a dangerous situation, but it taught me a lot.

Ever since the days of the Audi 5000’s unintended acceleration issue (yes, grasshopper, Toyota wasn’t the first automaker to face the matter), I’ve wondered something.

Even if the problem really is a mechanical or electronic defect causing the acceleration (I’m in the skeptics’ camp on that, the component between the seat and the steering wheel is likely the defective one), why didn’t the drivers just shift into neutral and use the brakes to slow and then stop the car?

The braking system on every car sold in North America for the past 40 years has been capable of slowing and ultimately stopping the car under full throttle. That’s how I managed to recently safely stop my Saturn sedan when the engine started to rev uncontrollably. The situation gave me insight into what’s going through a driver’s mind when that happens, and perhaps some understanding why folks end up getting into accidents when it does.

Not far from my home in suburban Detroit, I was driving south on Southfield Road, where the road becomes the onramp to the northern end of the southbound Southfield Freeway. As I accelerated from the last stoplight, I felt something unusual from the gas pedal. By the time I was on the ramp I realized something was keeping the throttle open. I fiddled around with my foot to make sure it wasn’t a water bottle or something else on the floor jamming the gas pedal as I considered that I was going too fast for the heavy traffic, too heavy to try to stop completely and, in any case, there wasn’t a shoulder there for me to stop.

The tachometer was right around 4,100 rpm. The SOHC Saturn 1.9 liter motor isn’t exactly gutless, but you really have to keep it above 3,000 rpm if you want to accelerate briskly —4,100 is certainly in the sweet spot in the power band.

I tapped the brakes and while they kept the car from accelerating, the pedal felt unusually hard. That’s probably because I’ve never braked under heavy throttle before. That’s when I realized it was pretty serious; no panic, but things definitely weren’t cool. I rode the brakes, figuring it was confusing the driver behind me since I wasn’t slowing much. Then I shifted into neutral, which at least kept the car from accelerating more and kept the brakes from fading. By then I had to make a decision, stay on the freeway or pull off at the first exit, which meant getting over in a hurry as it was approaching quickly.

With the transmission in neutral, the engine started to oscillate up and down a couple hundred revs, almost like it was hitting a rev limiter, which this engine doesn’t have and in any case, that’s way below the redline so I wasn’t worried about throwing a rod or some serious damage. Still, something was not right and I had to get the car safely stopped. As soon as I got up the ramp, I turned down the first side street, and with the car still in neutral I stopped it, shut off the ignition and then shifted the transmission into park. Dropping it into park at 4,100 rpm probably would not have been good for the transmission’s parking pawl, or the transmission mounts.

Looking down into the footwell, I could tell that there was nothing obstructing the gas pedal, so I got out to check under the hood. I caught a whiff of hot metal — likely the brake rotors — as I walked to the front of the car. When I opened the hood I discovered that I had done something stupid the day before which caused the problem.

This summer I did something that I never thought I’d ever do. I fixed an automatic transmission. I’ve done a fair amount of wrenching on cars, up to and including rebuilding engines, but as far as I’m concerned ATs are a mix of planetary gears (which I don’t quite understand) and voodoo.

However, according to a variety of Saturn enthusiast sources and YouTube instructional videos, the problem my Saturn was having — slamming into reverse and most forward gears — was almost certainly due to a worn valve body, and the valve body sat right on top of the transmission, making the repair a fairly straightforward remove-and-replace job once you get the battery box and air intake out of the way. The rebuilt valve body was a couple hundred dollars, but I figured doing it myself had to save at least that much. Automatic transmission work is never cheap when you have to pay for it.

Post repair, the transmission was working fine and shifting smoothly, but I noticed a fluid leak and some gearbox noise from the low fluid level. My first thought was that I shouldn’t have reused the valve body cover gasket like all the online instructions told me to do. Then, I noticed the leak was from the general vicinity of the spin on transmission filter. As mentioned, I’m no novice as a shade tree mechanic. I have a pretty good idea off how hand tight a spin-on filter like that should be, but I guess I didn’t have it on there tight enough because it had walked itself back about a full turn. I retightened it, gave it another quarter turn just to be sure, and added the half quart of fluid I had in the car. That fixed the leak and reduced the noise.

This past Sunday, prior to driving down to the time warp that is Powell, Ohio for the mitzvah of visiting the injured, I added another half quart of Dex III/Merc ATF, to top off the transmission. That quieted things down back to normal.

After my little episode of unintended acceleration, once I got the car safely stopped, I discovered that when I went to put away the funnel I was using to get the fluid into the dipstick/filler tube, I had forgotten to put the dipstick back. I don’t know how it stayed where it was on top of the engine for almost 400 miles of driving, but by the time I was entering the Southfield expressway, the plastic pull-ring on the end of the dipstick had managed to work itself around part of the linkage for the fuel injection throttle body, preventing it from returning to the idle position.

I disentangled the ring from the linkage, put the dipstick back in the tube, wiped the grease from my hands, restarted the car and went on my merry way. Looking back, though, I can understand how some drivers might panic, no matter the cause of the unintended acceleration. I’m relatively knowledgeable about cars, but it took me about a quarter mile to figure out that the engine was racing. If not completely out of control, the engine was running at a high enough rate to be going too fast for conditions. Then, when I used the brakes, they felt very hard — almost failed-master-cylinder hard. I’m sure that would disconcert most drivers and possibly cause panic.

Additionally, since the Toyota UI issue arose, I’ve reviewed a few cars that have push-button keyless start, or unusual shifter controls. I’ve given some thought to how to find neutral and shut off the ignition if needed in every car I’ve driven for the past couple of years. Shifting into neutral when the Saturn started to run away was natural for me, but I’m not sure how many drivers in an unfamiliar emergency would think of it. As it happened, steering a car at highway speeds in neutral felt kind of weird. We’re not used to freewheeling.

Outside of insight into driver psychology, this incident has reinforced a lot of what I’ve previously believed about unintended acceleration. It’s not very likely to happen, but when it does, it’s probably the result of a traceable mechanical or electronic issue. When it does happen, shifting into neutral and using your brakes will undoubtedly slow the car and keep you safe.

This unintended acceleration incident has also reminded me of the first rule of repair: Make sure you put all the parts back in. I’m not likely to forget about a dipstick like that again.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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90 Comments on “A Case of Unintended Acceleration; Why Some Drivers Panic...”


  • avatar

    I wasn’t speeding officer.

    #unintended acceleration

  • avatar
    bk_moto

    FYI the brake pedal likely felt hard because of a loss of power assist. The power brake booster operates via the existence of engine vacuum. However, if the throttle is wide open, there is no vacuum. The brake booster generally has enough vacuum reserve for one or two brake applications but after that if the engine is not pulling a vacuum you will not have power brake assist.

    The brakes still work just as well of course, you just have to apply a lot more force to get the same results.

    • 0 avatar
      APaGttH

      Exactly this. Was going to reply with this.

      In working the problem Ronnie probably used his one good easy pump trying to slow the car down, lifted up off the brake, and the pedal went hard.

      It is a good educational read on the why – and I had argued many times that there are plenty of arm chair quarterbacks that say it is so easy, but have never faced the emergency themselves.

      Ronnie KNOWS cars, the average driving slob, like 99.8% of the nation doesn’t. The average slob would likely have been afraid to go into neutral in their situation with tragic consequences. On the other hand the average driving slob likely wouldn’t be servicing their transmission on their own.

  • avatar
    greaseyknight

    Good observations, as a gearhead I’ve driven just about everything. Motorcycles, dirt bikes, tractors, heavy equipment. Operating different vehicles helps to keep your mind sharp to what is going on. For the average consumer, who drives nothing but an automatic car, doing something other than putting it in drive and pressing the go pedal could be difficult. Even switching from a stick car to an automatic isn’t always automatic for me.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    Easy solution. Only drive a car with a 3rd pedal. Stepping on the 3rd pedal helps to immediately nullify the acceleration. Shifting into neutral is easy and becomes second nature.

    And those who drive a standard routinely monitor engine speed and therefore are less likely to be taken unaware.

    Another reason why all drivers should know how to drive a standard. That skill assists them, even when driving a slushbox.

    • 0 avatar
      Madroc

      Yep. When the whole UIA thing was going on, it always blew my mind that it did not instantly occur to people to throw it into neutral, but then, the panic reaction in both cars in my garage includes “left foot on clutch NOW.” The UIA debacle also strengthened my wife’s and my resolve that our children will receive their driving instruction in a car with three pedals.

    • 0 avatar
      319583076

      Good points, if more people could drive standards, I’d be able to find and buy a car that I actually want to drive as another benefit. #hatethelazymasses

    • 0 avatar
      threeer

      Exactly what I did a few years back when my beater 1983 BMW 320i started to accelerate. The brake pedal wasn’t doing the job, so I pressed in the clutch, threw it in neutral and immediately pulled off the road. After a few minutes of investigations, turned out the kick panel under the steering wheel had come loose and a part of it was wedged behind the gas pedal. Given how old the panel was, I simply ripped it from the bottom of the dash and threw it into the back seat. Problem solved, not runaway Bimmer and little to no panic or drama!

      • 0 avatar
        285exp

        I had a 1977 320i and had the throttle stick at nearly WOT when I was accelerating onto the interstate. Fortunately, the power output of a 77 320i wasn’t particularly overwhelming, so it wasn’t going to runaway anywhere too fast, but it made it interesting to drive. I just turned the ignition on and off as needed to keep from going too fast and to shift. Drove it that way to my repair shop which, as the owner of a 1977 BMW 320i, I was very familiar with the location of.

        There’s no need to put any reasonably modern car with it’s brakes in good condition into neutral or shut off the ignition, all you have to do is hammer the brakes as hard as you can and it will stop. Do not pump them, because after a couple of applications you will use up any vacuum in the booster, making it harder to stop, and you can overheat the brakes so much that they’ll fade too much to hold against the power of the engine. Turning off the engine will kill the power steering and possibly lock the steering wheel. Get it stopped and then figure out what’s going on.

    • 0 avatar
      ptschett

      Of course, manuals have their own unintended motion risks, if something is keeping the clutch partly engaged despite the pedal/lever being fully depressed. (Cold oil in a wet clutch, rusty/improperly lubed splines in a dry clutch, linkage/hydraulics problems, etc.) You can get used to a manual ATV or motorcycle wanting to lurch a foot forward the 1st time it’s dropped into 1st after storage due to the wet clutch dragging; it’s harder to get used to a stick-shift car powering itself into the garage like an automatic i.e. having to be held back with the brake.

      • 0 avatar
        shaker

        “…motorcycle wanting to lurch a foot forward the 1st time it’s dropped into 1st after storage due to the wet clutch dragging…”

        I’ve found that the best thing to do is to start the bike in neutral, then work the clutch in and out while idling – that gets oil (that had been “squoze out”) back between the clutch discs, and almost eliminates the drag; a couple of miles later, all normal.

  • avatar
    Lightspeed

    I think Audi and Toyota basically got hosed by the lawyers. I’ve had ‘unintended acceleration’ a couple times. Once, the floor mat stuck the throttle wide-open while I was shifting gears – dipped the clutch, shut off the key, braked. Another time I was practising heel & toe and got so mixed up I hit the gas instead of brake – twice – I had to pull both feet back and look down! And, my wife hit the gas instead of brake and crashed inside our garage (thank God she was home and safe). What I am saying is 99.9999% of these cases have to be human-error.

    • 0 avatar
      Felis Concolor

      Independent studies regarding distraction and vehicle ergonomics all came to the same conclusion in the case of the Audi 5000: an unfortunate convergence of seat alignment and pedal placement, none of which were out of the general range of variance across the industry, conspired to place the accelerator in line with the driver’s “straight ahead” position of the right foot, instead of biasing the brake pedal towards the “straight ahead” position. This led to a slightly increased frequency of distracted or inattentive drivers engaging in the door-seat-start-shift-throttle scenario, instead of engaging the brake pedal while shifting into gear. The driver’s natural tendency to believe their perception was the reality led to the claims of a misbehaving automobile.

      Even when test subjects in a distraction study were shown their right foot was firmly jammed against the accelerator, they continued to claim they were pressing the brake.

      Audi should not have caved in to media pressure; it set them back a good 20 years in the US.

      • 0 avatar
        udman

        Obviously the 20 years Audi had to refine their products into a more desirable AND dependable product was wasted…

        • 0 avatar
          Trend-Shifter

          I have two Audi 5000 that are daily drivers. One is a stick shift Quattro and the other is a FWD automatic.
          I have a theory on why an automatic Audi 500 had so many accounts of the unintended acceleration problem based on my own car that had 24,000 original miles.
          When my 1984 automatic Audi 5000 is started above 65 degrees while the engine is cold it would go through this mild engine surge cycle before the idle stabilizes. As you start the engine it would run up to about 1200 RPM’s. Then the engine would drop to around 600 RPMs. Next it re-surges to about 1600 RPMs and returns down to settle around 800 RPMs. This happens in a very short period of time. (seconds)
          If someone started this car and immediately put it in gear, the owner would think the car is going to surge ahead or surge in reverse. This is the point where the owner panics to hit the brake and instead hits the gas.
          The brakes could easily hold the car, but the idle surge made the driver panic and make the mistake.

          BTW, you will see my gray 87 Audi 5000S Quattro driven daily on the Detroit freeway system. I drive it 550 miles a week!

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            Can verify the 5000 engine surging, especially cold engine in cold weather. I started mine to head to high school one morning (running late as usual), put foot on BRAKE (no revs) and put it in drive too quickly, before the cycle mentioned above had finished. Foot off brake, car revved and surged forward immediately and rather quickly.

            Course I went AHHH! And hit the brake hard. Then the engine settled down, and I was on my way.

            But that car could accelerate quickly, even when my foot was nowhere near the throttle, given the right circumstance of cold engine + cold temps + shift into drive too soon.

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        My Mom managed to do this when I was a kid in my Stepfather’s brand new ’77 Pontiac Grand Prix. She was pulling into the carport, her foot slipped off the brake onto the gas. When the car lunged forward, she just stepped harder, because she was SURE her foot was on the brake. Peeled rubber right across the floor of the carport and through the shed at the back right into the back yard before she finally let off. Banged up the car, but it wasn’t quite totaled.

  • avatar
    nowhereusa

    I had my 2007 Sonata decide to stick at max acceleration when i was on the freeway. When your not expecting it and your car suddenly races off it’s a little scary.
    I did the same thing rode the brakes (which were really hard to press down) and pulled over.
    It happened a couple of times until i realized the accelerator was getting stuck on the floor mat that had worked its way up and was trapping the accelerator on the floor. Yeah it should of been the first thing i checked. Just never even occurred to me! Well least i have that experience under my belt and know how to handle it should it ever occur again.
    But i can definitely see how people may freak out if they aren’t calm drivers and it could cause an accident.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I’ve shared this story here before, but here is my story of UI:

    I bought my former 05 xB in April 2005, and some time around the following March I was on my way to work on a Monday on the parkway (cruise control activated), when the car began accelerating uphill, gradually passing 70 and reaching close to 90 mph. The xB isn’t a powerhouse, so this was really noticeable.

    I depressed the clutch, and the engine redlined. I disabled the cruise control, and the engine still redlined. I turned off the ignition, then restarted it (still rolling along at 60 mph), and the engine redlined again. Finally – on a hunch – I jabbed the accelerator to the floor, and then everything returned to normal. Jabbing the throttle broke it free.

    Later, I figured out the cause: I had sprayed off the motor over the weekend, didn’t run it afterward, and the changing weather had caused the throttle cable to partially freeze. It had apparently broken free enough to reach the parkway, but then it re-froze with the throttle cable open while driving.

    So my lesson was this: Wash engines judiciously, and always drive them immediately afterward to force the moisture away from moving linkages, cables, bearings, and connectors.

    Therefore, I can understand the panic a driver can experience during a UI event, and some drivers and cars are more able to cope with this than others. Having a manual transmission makes it easy.

    One challenge for your post, Ronnie: I’m not so sure the brakes on a car can stop a vehicle rolling at top speed with full power still being applied. Brake fade happens pretty rapidly. The testimony of several UI victims seems to verify this. Most people don’t apply full braking power immediately, so the brakes are effectively ‘ridden’ until they fade into uselessness. My $0.02.

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    A lot of the issue is perhaps A unintended consequence of the modern auto. Lord knows I have owned and put a lot of miles on cars that cost less than a new set of tires for my suburban, I believe that hoopty would be the description. My formative driving years ussually included a “I wonder what will go wrong to trip?” Question to myself.

    Since most of my early rides were MT, stuck throttle cables were not a reason to panic, infrequent as they were.

    Stuck throttle, vapor lock, thrown power steering belt and many other issues that are practically nonexistent today have advanced our motoring pleasure today yet, the absence of them allows for a poorer understanding of what to do when an issue does arise.

  • avatar
    Lythandra

    I had it happen once in my 03 VW GTI. Had the cruise control on and the car decided that cruise was set to low I guess. Luckily traffic was light and it went off when I touched the brakes. Its only happened once but I rarely use CC.

  • avatar
    jmo

    If only there was a third pedal on the floor with which one could disengage the transmission.

    • 0 avatar
      Sigivald

      And one you have to use every time you shift, because it’s 1939 and the automatic transmission isn’t in cars yet!

      Yeah, “make every car a manual because it fixes this one rare problem in a slightly different way than just hitting the shifter forward to N and you’re more used to using the clutch” is a… non-solution for pretty much everyone.

  • avatar
    Shane Rimmer

    I had plenty of experience with the transmission filter backing out and leaking on my mother’s Saturn. I finally ended up using a filter wrench to tighten the filter up after tightening it by hand and even replacing it a few times under the theory that I had messed up the seal somehow. Didn’t leak after that to my knowledge.

  • avatar
    JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

    I had a throttle get stuck on an 85 Mercury Topaz I was borrowing when I was 17. I blew through a redlight at 85+ mph before I was able to get the pedal unstuck. It wasnt the car’s fault, it was the thick ribbed all-weather floor mat that caused the jam. I left the floor mat on the shoulder of the road after I got the car stopped. I told the owner and she said it was fine that I did that since if it happened to her, it probably wouldnt have turned out as well.

    A couple of years ago, the throttle on my 96 Aerostar got stuck 3/4 down. This time, it was the throttle cable’s fault. I had someone spray WD-40 down the shaft of the cable (under the hood) while I worked the pedal inside the van and this cured the issue.

    While Im not convinced thst human error caused the Toyota issues, I am 100% convinced that human error caused the resulting wrecks. I know modern Toyota shifters are shaped weirdly, but it still seems to me that the driver couldve shifted into neutral (or a lower gear) and prevented the accidents. Makes no sense why a trained California Highway Patrolman couldnt reach the same conclusion before crashing.

    I drove a Dodge Stratus about 50 miles with no brakes. In traffic (I forced downshifts and used the parking brake to come to a stop when needed). I had a Firestone tire blow out on a 1996 Explorer at 70 mph. I guess its just hard for me to understand how people can loose control when something happens like that. Yes, Ive been in a panic situation, but it still baffles me. Im not perfect (by ANY streach of the imagination lol), but in each sitiation, I was able to react and not crash.

    • 0 avatar
      Arthur Dailey

      @johntaurus: slightly off topic but over the course of one month in 1977 on separate occasions, I had 2 Firestone 500 radials blow out on me while driving my 1977 400 c.i.d.Pontiac Grand Prix SJ down the Don Valley Parkway in Toronto. At that time you could actually drive on it the way it was designed (a multi-lane, divided highway) rather than the stop and go crawl that is now a permanent part of its experience. In nearly 40 years neither I nor any member of my extended family have ever purchased Firestone tires or drive a car equipped with them (swapped out if factory equipped).

      • 0 avatar
        JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

        I have had it happen as well on my utility trailer that had Ford Ranger wheels with Firestone ATX tires. I tried to avoid Firestone (and after premature wear on my Bridgstone Potenza tires on my 93 Taurus, those as well).

        But, recently I got three nearly new take-off Firestone FT10 tires for my current 95 Taurus (came off a late model Altima, my Taurus has 16″ alloys from an 06 model which use the same size tire). So far, theyre doing fine. The Michilen tires they replaced would squeel like a stuck pig when going around corners on new pavement. There is some road noise from the Firestones, but no squeeling (even when pushing the car closer to its limits on the same road/corners, 70+ instead of 60-65 before). For OEM tires, theyre not too bad. Certainly better than the terrible Ameri* Generals that came on my mom’s 1997 Sable, which required replacing at less than 30k miles. The handling and road noise was improved greatly with the higher quality tires we had put on the Sable. This summer has been exceptionally dry, so I dont yet know how the Firestones will perform in heavy rain storms that we typically get down here in the Dirty South.

        By contrast to the $#¡ГГ¥ factory tires on the 97 Sable, my parent’s current 2012 Taurus is still rolling on its original tires with over 70k on the odometer. I believe they are Michilens. Quite a difference. It could also be in part due to the fact that I was in my teens when the Sable was purchased, and the low-end torque allowed me to do burnouts all the time lol. I also neutral dropped that Sable several times, I dont know how I didnt destroy the transaxle being stupid like that. Thankfully I matured significantly and regularly maintained it later in the car’s life. Still shifting great with about 200k when they sold it.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    It’s a complete lack of *What If* training, or even *What If* thinking.

    Too many don’t even know wtf Neutral is for! How the Fukk does one become a CHP officer and not know this??

  • avatar
    qfrog

    Way back in 2007ish I had gotten my track toy started and I was test driving it a bit on local roads. I converted the car from V6 to 2.0 turbo. The engine management system went from Hitachi MMS to The 034efi/webber redline/pantera efi (same box 3 names). I hadn’t really fully prepared the car for driving and I had forgotten about a cap I had placed on a port on the intake manifold which was not going to be used or was part of the PCV system which wasn’t fully fleshed out due to the complexity of the system. During one brief drive I decided I’d enter the highway for a mile or two to get back to the workshop. I entered the first entrance ramp and while accelerating I noticed when I lifted the engine didn’t reduce output and the car didn’t want to stop accelerating. I was slightly dismayed at this fact but even then I knew I could stop the car in several ways.

    The engine was running on a baseline tune on an engine capable of 430hp based on the lb/hr flow rate of the turbocharger. I have no idea how much power the car had or was making at the time but could move very quickly. From what I remember the plug on the manifold blew off and since the ECM is a speed density type it didn’t know or care that engine was breathing less air than the turbo was flowing. Lucky for me for whatever reason I’d lift and press the clutch the engine would rev up to 3 or 4krpm and then go back to idle so I didn’t have to shut the engine down which was good because the ECM couldn’t handle a rolling restart worth a damn.

  • avatar
    DeadWeight

    Driver’s side floor mats.

    Cut them – the top 1/4 to 1/3, if they are long enough to interfere with gas or brake pedals.

    That is all.

    • 0 avatar
      JMII

      That sure seems like the solution to most of these problems.

      Rule #1 when instructing drivers at HPDE events (IE: track days) is remove floor mats. Under heavy braking they tend slide into the pedal area which can affect gas, brake or clutch action. Mostly the gas since that pedal almost always sits lower, in fact in some cars the pedal is floor mounted. Both my Z and the wife’s Volvo the factory mats have clips that hold them in place, but my Dakota has the free floating kind of mat from the factor that slides everywhere all the time… turns out that is not exactly safe.

    • 0 avatar
      shaker

      Weather Techs, all year. :-)

      • 0 avatar
        sgeffe

        Depends, though, if there are factory clips or grommets to hold them in place. I could see edge cases where there could be potential problems, like if the floorpan isn’t angled down enough past the seat. One hard acceleration run on race day, and Lord knows…!

      • 0 avatar
        davefromcalgary

        Just adding my two cents, but I agree, quality fitted floor mats go a long way.

        In salt country, I won’t go without some kind of floor mat, and the Weather Techs give excellent coverage, and are thin enough to not impede pedal operation, and also don’t really move around.

  • avatar

    I’ve had a brief touch of UI in my 77 Chevelle when the kickdown cable for the TH350 hung up after a bit of WOT on-ramp action from the lazy 305, no idea how fast it revved, but thanks to the generous vacuum of the limp cam I had plenty of brake assist to get it off to the shoulder after shutting the engine off. This is one car that the brakes are vastly more capable than the engine makes power.

  • avatar
    TDIGuy

    I really have to find the link to this article, but during the last Toyota UI debacle, a story was brought forth in Toyota’s defense of a woman in Toronto, who upon discovering her car was accelerating uncontrollably, figured “it must be the UI issue” and braced for impact, assuming there was nothing she could do about it. At the resulting wreck on the highway, police found a water bottle lodged under the gas pedal of her *Nissan* had caused the problem.

  • avatar
    TDIGuy

    On a sadder note, a woman who crashed into a Costco when her car “accelerated uncontrollably” was just sentenced to probation, community service and her license suspended for 5 years.

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/windsor/ruth-burger-costco-crash-sentencing-probation-1.3280494

    Seriously, I’ve been at this Costco. She had a lot of ground to cover to hit the store, especially considering she was in reverse.

    • 0 avatar
      rpn453

      Only five years? Does anyone really think her cognitive abilities are going to improve in that time period? Should be life for any at-fault death.

      The probation is a bit much though. She’s not a criminal. She just doesn’t possess the mental acuity to be operating a vehicle.

      • 0 avatar
        TDIGuy

        > Only five years?

        If I recall how the system works here, she has to reapply to get her license as if she was a new driver. Which means taking driver’s test. Given she is already 65, I’ll bet the judge is hoping she won’t bother.

    • 0 avatar
      VolandoBajo

      Saw a very sad case of UI years ago in Brooklyn, where a guy sitting behind the wheel somehow managed to have his car rev up, jump a curb, and pin a mother with a carriage and another toddle to a storefront.

      There was at least one dead. Don’t recall if I ever knew the final outcome, but the driver said the car just suddenly took off. This was before there was mass media publicity of UI.

      I tell my wife and son to never walk behind any car with lights on or a motor running in shopping center parking lots, unless there is at least a ten foot safety zone. And I refuse to drive by a car in a driveway on the right side of the road, if its driver is sitting there in reverse waiting for me to pass.

      The bullet that can’t reach you can’t kill you.

  • avatar
    Searcher

    I had my own UA some years ago as I was working as an auto tech. It was an MN12 Thunderbird and my habit then was to get in the car, start it, and then pull the trans into Drive without actually applying the brake, only covering the pedal. As the car idled forward I went to apply the brake and the car accelerated sharply. My immediate, instinctual, reaction was to apply the brake harder only to feel the car accelerate even harder. My second, more reasoned response was to switch the ignition off. I got the car stopped about halfway across the parking lot.

    After that I changed my pattern to actually applying the brake before engaging Drive and it was again an MN12 that I had another near miss with UI. This one was idling before I got in and when I depressed the brake the engine revved wildly. It was then that I understood what had happened the previous time. The MN12 has a gigantic trans tunnel in the area of the pedals and apparently Ford shifted the pedals left just enough that it threw off my normal foot placement and I was actually applying the throttle and not the brake. It seems like this would be obvious but it’s not a reasoned response when this sort of UA occurs and that’s why reasoned examination of why somebody would react like that doesn’t work after the fact.

    • 0 avatar
      RaptorConner

      I daily drive a 1989 Thunderbird and I can’t ever recall doing this, but you’re right about the footwell, its pretty small. I converted mine to a 5 speed, but when it was an automatic I generally didn’t step on the brake to shift either since it didn’t move fast while idling. I suppose I just got lucky.

      My only experience with unintended acceleration was when I had the automatic still in it. The TV/kickdown cable grommet broke and the cable popped out of the throttle body. The spring tension on the cable is what helps to close the throttle, and so it was stuck about halfway open. I hit the brakes and slowed down before turning the engine off and parking it. I opened the hood, figured out what was going on, and came up with a temporary fix. It certainly is a weird feeling when your car tries to get away from you.

      Since the 5 speed swap, I still have that TV cable still hooked up to the throttle body, but coiled out of the way since its no longer connected to anything. The spring tension still makes the throttle close. Though in the past couple years I have started it in gear on accident without pushing the clutch. I try to get in the habit of pushing in the clutch to start it now.

    • 0 avatar
      NoGoYo

      I’ve never had that problem in my 95, but I do have a problem with my big ol size 13 shoes getting stuck between gas and brake sometimes.

  • avatar
    Russycle

    When I was young and even more foolish, I was heading to my buddy’s house, which was at the top of a steep road, and decided to floor my dad’s 72 Suburban to see how the 350 V8 climbed. The after-market cruise control linkage got stuck wide-open and I had a few moments of panic when the car wouldn’t slow down. Thankfully gravity and the ‘Burb’s brakes were enough to stop the vehicle, I didn’t think to put it in neutral until after I got it stopped.

    It’s hard not to panic when your vehicle behaves in unexpectedly and you only have a few seconds to react.

  • avatar
    MBella

    I had it happen on my Ranger. The idle control valve stuck open. I hit the clutch, and the crisis was over. I agree with the others that say people aren’t ready for any failures anymore. Driving some beaters definitely helps you get ready for n insident.

  • avatar

    The throttle got stuck on the ’65 Peugeot 404 wagon when I was 16, about four months after I’d gotten my license. My recollection–somewhat vague–is that I kicked the gas pedal a couple of times and it became unstuck. (The Peugeot was not at all powerful.)

  • avatar
    Matt Foley

    The S-series DOES have a rev limiter. Automatics are limited to ~4000rpm in neutral, hence your oscillating revs rather than broken aluminum bits everywhere. You did well by opting for neutral.

    Where’d you source your valve body? Special Forces, or Ken Partin?

  • avatar
    Nick 2012

    Unintended Acceleration happened to me once due to a burr on a throttle cable caused by a sloppy mechanic. I was in high school in a 1994 Grand Marquis, and applied some heavy throttle to accelerate into a merge lane. The throttle stuck to the floor and would not release as the 4.6 cammer kept climbing through the gears.

    Fortunately, I didn’t panic and shifted into neutral once I realized what was going on. I was able to get the pedal unstuck, and after pressing it up and down and realizing that the burr would only ‘catch’ at 3/4 throttle or beyond, I nursed it to another mechanic who found the issue and repaired it.

    I have to admit, it was slightly terrifying as my car uncontrollably hurled up to speed. I did slam the brakes a few times to reduce forward velocity while I tried to lift up the throttle pedal, but this process of elimination only took a few seconds before I threw the thing into neutral.

    Both of my cars are manuals now and have a handy pedal for decoupling the engine from the wheels at any time and at any speed.

    • 0 avatar
      epsilonkore

      I have only bought one automatic in my lifetime, the rest were manuals, most Toyota (or derivatives). Wonder how many of those UA Toyotas that were in accidents were manuals? My guess is zero.

      Manuals save lifes.
      Save the Manual!

      • 0 avatar
        VolandoBajo

        Yikes! MT’s can save lives, yet none of the US or EC safety nannies have yet calculated how many lives, skipped over the cost/benefit calculation, and gone straight to mandatory legislation.

        Perhaps this is the solution to the disappearing MT option in new cars.

  • avatar
    jacob_coulter

    I had it happen on an Oldsmobile Cutlass.

    It was my fault, I had been doing some work on the carburetor and the throttle cable had somehow come undone and made the throttle stay open.

    Pretty easy “emergency” to recover from, I slid the shifter into neutral, braked, pulled over and killed the ignition.

    Far more likely to have an accident with something like a tire blowout which is much more common.

    And I do feel bad for companies like Toyota and Audi that got completely thrown under the bus for that nonsense.

  • avatar
    pbr

    The Mazda all-weather mats that came with my Mazda 3 were recalled b/c they interfered with the bottom of the gas pedal. The service manager who handled my case was amused to find I had trimmed the offending mat, IIRC over a year before the recall. I didn’t wait for UI, I didn’t like the feel of the pedal hanging up on the mat every time I cycled the pedal.

    As for Ronnie’s remark about not putting his Saturn in “Park” with high revs, I don’t think that’s an issue. Putting it in “Park” with the car moving would be, however.

    “Parking pawl” reminds me of of one of a @jackbaruth predecessor … I have this vague recollection of reading a piece in (probably) R&T about some guy who dropped a 70’s Cadillac body onto some old formula-car chassis. Masertati or something. I can still see the watercolor cutaway of a Caddy body draped over a front-engined single-seater. The Caddy needed a driveline because a female passenger had kneed the shift lever into Park while the car was travelling at highway speed and assploded the transmission. The 12 (?) year old kid reading it thought “that had to be the hard way to fix THAT problem,” this me figures it was humor that went over my head back then.

    • 0 avatar
      shaker

      “assploded”

      That’s the first time I’ve seen that word in print; and it fits the situation perfectly.

      It could also be the aftermath of eating a bowl of Raisin Bran covered with 1/2 cup of Milk… of Magnesia.

    • 0 avatar
      rpn453

      I returned those Mazda3 mats because of that. Then, when the carpet mats became smelly after a winter of constant dampness I gave in and bought them again after a fruitless search for decent aftermarket options, and just trimmed them. I didn’t even know they had been recalled. They’re still in use.

  • avatar
    Evan Williams

    I had a case of UI at an autocross last month. The pedal in my E36 jammed all the way down (floor hinged, the clip attaching it to the arm broke allowing the pedal to disconnect from the arm, move past the travel of the arm and jam it). I realized when I braked and turned and neither of those things happened. I got the clutch in and the car stopped while narrowly missing 2 large rocks. I had (per my video) about 3 seconds from “no brake” to “stopped”. If I can get it done in that situation, a highway should be fairly straightforward. It’s actually kinda funny to watch me reach for the shifter, miss, clutch (didn’t miss), reach for the key, miss and then fumble for key and shifter.

  • avatar
    pragmatist

    Ok, it happened to me in a couple of older cars (not sure what you’d do with the new keyless ones) but I simply turned the key to the off (NOT locked) position. No drama. No smoking brakes or screaming engine.

  • avatar
    rdsymmes

    I bought an ’85 Audi 5000 5 speed AFTER 60 Minutes did their number on Audi. I never thought that story had any merit (and a manual was certainly clear), but getting that car so very cheap was my win, sort of. What I did not take into account was the unintended electrical problems, the unintended window lift motor failures, the unintended power steering half-shaft (?) failures, and the totally intended luxury car dealer parts and labor costs. Finally bent over and bought a 90′ Passat. Some people never learn, do they?

    • 0 avatar
      Forty2

      I bought a repo’d ’87 5000S, the first and last car I bought with an automatic transmission (the two other automatics I owned in the past were originally my mom’s). Dirt cheap, still under warranty for oh another 18 months. Had two transmissions replaced, the HVAC ducting under the dash simply fell off one super-hot day, fuel pumps failed every few months — after the third or fourth I carried a spare and once reached into a full tank up to my elbow in gasoline to replace it; the resulting chemical burn nearly put me in the hospital — the power seat lost its mind and I had a 4″ thick Los Angeles Yellow Pages wedged behind my butt so I could reach the pedals, the CEL light never stayed off long, and when the car was eating its third transmission out of warranty I just stopped making the payments and let the bank drag its sorry ass off. My credit was already ruined anyway so that wasn’t a big deal. But never any UA problems! I hope it was slowly crushed.

  • avatar
    davefromcalgary

    The Alero did this, with the throttle cable icing in some crazy winter driving conditions. Clutch pedal, jab the throttle, resume for another hour till it iced again.

    I really think driving a standard just hammers the concept of neutral into your head in a meaningful way.

  • avatar
    carlisimo

    A lot of people are using the abbreviation “UI” instead of “UA”. Is it a common error or does the I stand for something that’s just escaping my mind?

  • avatar
    Moparmann

    In certain circles, “UI” stands for “Unemployment Insurance”! :-)

  • avatar
    rpn453

    Shifting to neutral came naturally for me the only time I’ve experienced unintended acceleration, when the pedal caught on a floor mat. I tended to shift to neutral a lot while driving automatics in my younger days. I’d do it during any hard braking or braking in slippery conditions. I don’t know where I learned that from, or if it was even beneficial in any way. Braking just seemed to feel better in neutral in every automatic I drove back then.

    I’m not one to panic in unexpected situations though. The ’80 Wagoneer that I learned to drive on had a bad master cylinder that would occasionally allow the brake pedal to go right to the floor without resistance or braking effect. Another pump or two and it was fine, so it didn’t seem like much of a concern to my sixteen-year-old mind. Fortunately my father drove it one day and discovered the problem. It was repaired immediately after.

    • 0 avatar
      al w

      My experience with a master cylinder was the opposite. I was learning to drive in my father’s ’57 Dodge. On an uphill exit ramp from the Edsel Ford Expressway in Detroit, I put my foot on the brake pedal and it calmly sank to the floor. We rolled up the ramp, to the stop light at the top, and calmly rolled through the red light and around the corner to the right, where I pulled the car to the curb and calmly stopped it with the emergency brake. (This was before it was fashionable to turn right through stop lights in the midwest.) My father said, “What did you do that for?” I said, “The car doesn’t have any brakes.” He said that I just had to pump them a second time. Seemed perfectly reasonable to him. So I pumped the pedal again, and we went on our way.

  • avatar
    EAF

    Interesting experiences!

    Because of the orientation of the pedals on my DSM, I cannot heel-toe by the book. Instead, I use a modified method where I use my toe on the brake and the right side of my foot on the accelerator. It works great but took me some time to “perfect.” Anyway, an unintended consequence is that my heel drags on the floormat and shifts it under the accelerator pedal.

    I havent used a driver’s side floor mat in 15+ years!

    Quick story; my friend had an Elantra, I want to say MY02. Pick-up runs a stop sign and hits her hard on the right fender. Her Elantra lurches forward at top speed narrowly missing pedestrians and finally coming to a rest in someone’s living room.

    The cruise control was of the cable type, it was mounted near the right shock tower, when she was hit the unit shifted, tugged on the cables and consequently the throttle rotor as well!

  • avatar
    Joe K

    I have had it happen twice to me over 30 years. I dont get whats so hard about putting the car in neutral or depressing the clutch. If I remember right the 1st time was a split second of panic, the second many years later was just annoying.

    I never ever looked for a gas pedal obstruction until the car was safely stopped. Dad was a professional driver he taught me well.

  • avatar
    daro31

    I was always thankful for the lawyers who reved up the unintended acceleration of Audi’s. Best deals I ever got on used cars, 2004 Audi 5000 Avant and 2007 Quattro Turbo. Drove them uneventfully many years. Beautiful cars I could have never have afforded otherwise. If it wasn’t for the salt water highways of our Canadian winters I would still be driving the Quattro. Now if only the lawyers could get a class action going against Porshe.

  • avatar
    sgeffe

    Had it happen once. My 2006 Accord starts zinging as I’m at a stop sign when I think I’m braking. * But * before I even give it a thought, I simply reach over and pop the level into Neutral. Again, without a second thought!

    Then I look down! Turns out my right flip-flop had come partially off, and was hitting the throttle in addition to the brake!

    Neutral, hit brakes as hard as possible (don’t worry about engine bouncing off limiter), pull over, ignition off (or RT the vehicle’s FM for the emergency-stop sequence with a keyless system: Hondas require you to press the button three times in five seconds, or hold down the button for three seconds, IIRC, either/or, to shut ‘er down). Not rocket science, folks!

    As others have stated, it was a tragedy that the CHP officer’s family died, but someone with his training should have been able to shut that Lexus down, staring with grabbing that shifter and manhandling it into Neutral as necessary. (Those with Lexi with the staggered shifter pattern, can they be nudged up and to the left into Neutral without fuss from Drive while moving?)

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    I experienced UA once when I was young and in college. Lucky no one was around as I blew a few donuts in the snow as I got my 68″ Galaxie under control. Brakes didn’t really help much but neutral followed by turning the engine off did the trick. A frozen throttle was the culprit.
    A similar thing happened to my sister in law. My dad also has it happen to him. Each time it was due to extreme cold. After that I paid more attention to that sort of issue. One can blame automatic transmissions or say it is proof that manual transmissions are better but we just need to be more aware of the machines we operate.
    I told my son that if one is prepared for the worst then the worst will never happen. He initially didn’t understand this. A surprise overnight survival camp-out with his scout troop cleared that one up rather easily.

  • avatar
    daneli

    Great article, and helpful advice about how to think through in advance what to do in this kind of situation. However, at this point the skepticism about the causes of Toyota’s unintended acceleration problems – and references to floor mats and water bottles – is ridiculous. Careful analysis by embedded systems experts has firmly established that software problems lie at the root of the Toyota fiasco. The Toyota case is a now seen within the embedded systems word as a prime example of what happens when established coding standards are violated in the design of safety critical software. There is no reason at this point for the automotive press and the general public not to be aware of the conclusions reached by the embedded software engineering community about the causes of Toyota’s unintended acceleration problems.

    http://www.safetyresearch.net/blog/articles/toyota-unintended-acceleration-and-big-bowl-“spaghetti”-code
    http://www.eetimes.com/author.asp?section_id=182&doc_id=1321713
    http://www.eetimes.com/document.asp?doc_id=1319936

    etc, etc, etc

    • 0 avatar
      Quentin

      Sean Kane at Safety Research had huge skin in the game for it being a software issue. I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him. He was the guy that orchestrated the shenanigans where the community college auto mechanics teacher rewired an Avalon to make it rev out of control.

      http://jalopnik.com/5488464/the-mechanics-of-abc-news-unintended-toyota-acceleration-hoax

  • avatar
    RideHeight

    My only question about the entire UA fracas is this:

    Does anyone know whether there was some mechanical or electronic interlock active in that ES 350 which prevented the CA State Trooper from forcing the transmission out of Drive or killing the ignition?

    If there were *anyone* who should have been able to respond properly….

    • 0 avatar
      Quentin

      There is not an interlock that prevents the vehicle from going to neutral. When the transmission is in drive, one simply pushes the shifter forward to go into neutral. No push button or anything required.

      One of the running theories is that he had the shifter in manual shift mode. The motion that usually puts the car into neutral actually upshifts when you have the shifter in the manual mode. To get to neutral, you’d have to move the shifter right and then forward.

      • 0 avatar
        RideHeight

        Thanks. How about the ignition, was that particular year push-button?

        • 0 avatar
          285exp

          Yes, it was push button, which is one of the reasons I don’t like them. I can instantly turn off the ignition in a keyed car, there is a designed lag in push button ignitions.

          If I rememder correctly, it was a loaner vehicle, and so he wasn’t familiar with how to operate push button start/stop. For whatever reason, he didn’t handle the situation correctly. There is no reason he couldn’t have stopped the car by full brake application when it started to run away, regardless of whether he was able to shift into neutral or turn the engine off.

          • 0 avatar
            RideHeight

            I just don’t understand how such a capable and highly tested guy had that happen to him and his family unless it was simply the perfect storm of unfamiliarity with overly fancy controls.

            Brutal force needs brutally simple controls.

            BTW, wasn’t there a debate here on TTAC as to whether the brakes could’ve overcome sustained WOT in that particular car?

          • 0 avatar
            Quentin

            It isn’t that hard to imagine when you consider the external conditions that would have impacted his ability to get the car turned off or out of gear. The driver mashes the throttle at 70mph on the interstate to get around someone. Throttle is stuck under the RX350 all weather floormats in your loaner ES350. Now you’re at 80 and accelerating. He eases on the brakes, the car doesn’t stop. Eases again, now brakes are fading and lack of vacuum pressure is making things work. This is California, so you can imagine that he probably didn’t have open road ahead of him and spent his driving talent dodging other vehicles at 90mph/100mph rather than taking his eyes off the road to find where the shifter should go to get to N from where he was (either in D or S). The passengers are freaking out rather than looking on how to disengage the drive wheels from the engine.

            Finally, you can’t assume that a cop has any idea how a vehicle actually works. I’d bet that 75% of people don’t honestly understand what neutral does on a transmission. I doubt they teach that sort of thing in the police academy unless the person is being trained specifically on something like pit maneuvers where you might want to have that specific understanding of how a drivetrain functions. Most of them get high speed driving training, but that doesn’t necessarily cover how to stop a runaway car.

          • 0 avatar
            RideHeight

            But he was also an Air Force E-4 prior to the police force. Those guys tend to have some mechanical and electronic acumen.

            At any rate, it’s a sick shame.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            The E-4, the doomsday plane?

          • 0 avatar
            sgeffe

            Did that car burn to a cinder, or could they have determined the shifter position (assuming the impact(s) didn’t dislodge it)?

  • avatar
    shaker

    In 1974, a busted motor mount in my ’65 Comet Cyclone auto lurched me forward in a parking space (the motor lifted up and pulled on the throttle rod); but my foot went immediately on the brake at the time, the air cleaner bounced off the inside of the hood (which caused the motor to drop back down).

    I used some sort of improvised cable strap to hold the mount together until I replaced the mount.

  • avatar
    mechaman

    I owned one of the mythological Audi 5000’s awhile back: the car was , by that time, a beater, albeit a reliable one (favorite memory, starting other people’s car with that huge battery under the seat). One thing I noticed was that the car tended to ‘jump’ a bit forward when it started – I took that to be the age and wear on the car. But the pedal arrangement did make it too easy to step on the gas when you thought you were on the brake…

    • 0 avatar
      sgeffe

      Nowadays, some cars (like my Accord V6) might have a secondary catcon just downstream of the exhaust manifold, and to light them off quickly on a cold start, hit a very fast idle for up to a minute. You can’t just touch the brake when shifting out of Park — you have to have a firm foot! I found that out on my first 9th-Gen Accord V6 test drive, when the damn car, parked outside the dealership for a couple hours (and thankfully pointed away from other vehicles or obstructions), leapt forward 20 feet before I got my foot into it!

  • avatar
    MWolf

    I had unintentional acceleration occur twice in two separate vehicles. In my 1990 Deville, I simply kicked the throttle and it unstuck itself (just needed lubrication). The other was a 94 Explorer. A stupid floot mat ended up on top of the accelerator. I mamaged to reposition it with my heel, pull over and throw that damn mat to the back seat. Both were unsettling, but not enough to cause me to wreck. I generally understand when something doesn’t feel right with a car before it reaches the point of an accident.

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