Whenever I hear the words “out of control” from a reporter or pundit in the media when referring to Toyota’s now infamous stuck-throttle problems, I want to scream. Obviously, I’ve had way too many chances to scream lately.
So let’s set the record straight about how a perfectly normal Toyota, or any other car, truck, or SUV, can accelerate wildly “out of control” with an even reasonably competent driver behind the wheel. Can’t happen. Period. End of story if the driver simply puts the gearshift in neutral (that “N” just above “D”) and safely steers over to the shoulder of the road. And if the engine races until you shut it off, so what? All you really care about is keeping you and your passengers safe.
So how come there are all those reported accidents that involve Toyotas that race wildly out of control like “Christine,” the 1958 Plymouth Fury in the Stephen King novel that was made into a horror film in the early 1980s? I can only assume that the self-victimized drivers have avoided neutral like a late-night comedian. Or they’re too panicked to make that simple selection with the gear lever. Or it could be that some drivers have never ventured into neutral and have no idea of its remarkable attributes as a non-gear.
When people hear about the tragic accident involving an off-duty California highway patrolman who lost control of a 2009 Lexus ES350, it’s natural to assume he was unable to intervene. After all, if a professional driver can’t control a modest sedan, what chance does the general population have?
We’ll never know what really happened in that tragedy. What we do learn from press reports is that the same Lexus, a loaner from a local dealer, apparently suffered “pedal entrapment” from an improper floor mat (one for a Lexus SUV) that had been reported by a previous customer. That driver, Frank Bernard, discovered the defect when he accelerated onto a highway — and the Lexus “kept accelerating on its own” after he lifted his right foot.
Bernard attempted to free the throttle pedal, then tried to turn off the engine with the “start/stop” button, all while slowing the car with the brakes. Then he shifted the lever to neutral and proceeded to a safe stop while the engine made an annoying “whining, racing sound,” but was otherwise no longer involved in any acceleration or runaway drama.
The teachable lesson from this and other misfortunes that are the results of “unintended acceleration” events is simply to pick neutral first. Don’t worry about ignition key switches or start/stop buttons. And about those brakes — they out-power the engine in a big way, so even before you push the shift lever into neutral, they’ll slow the vehicle. Think of Arnold Schwarzenegger-sized brakes arm-wrestling a Danny DeVito-sized engine — it’s no contest.