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October 1, 2009

Toyota Recalls 3.8 Million Vehicles

So, in case you missed it, Toyota recalled 3.8 million vehicles this week. The reason for the recall was a crash in Santee, CA (near San Diego) that happened about a month ago. At first, I heard the story in passing and basically my understanding was that someone was in a car where the throttle got jammed wide open and the car crashed resulting in death(s). But I was like...this doesn't sound right. If a car's throttle gets stuck wide open, you could just put on the brakes or turn it off or something. Must have been a woman driver.

Then, I asked around a bit and learned that it was actually a CHP officer driving in the accident and a call was placed to 911 during the incident, and the car crashed killing the driver and everyone in the car with him. This caused me to reconsider the accident. Like, if some woman crashes her car...sure..the throttle was stuck. Whatever. But a CHP officer..how could this happen? What had really occurred?

So, I went online and did a little research. I was still thinking that the guy could have put on the brakes or turned off the ignition. However, I learned that witnesses saw them driving 120 mph with "fire coming from the wheels" before it crashed, indicative of "long, constant, heavy braking," before they crashed.

And I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he had probably locked the emergency brake and the regular brakes as well, but the brakes overheated to the point of apparently catching on fire, at which point they are of very little use.

So, the guy is going 120 mph down California State Highway 125 and the brakes won't stop the car. So, the next logical question is "why not turn the key and shut off the ignition?" My hunch was that he was in one of those new fancy cars with the push button ignition. I was right. He was in a brand new 2009 Lexus ES 350 with the tricky push-button to start the car. It doesn't really have an ignition to speak off. You have the key in your pocket, basically. And you push the button and the car starts. It wasn't the CHP officer's car. It was on loan from a local dealer. So, he was probably about as familiar with this new technology as most people are, which is to say, not very familiar with it at all. Probably, if he had pushed the button in and held it for 3 seconds, it would have shut off.

So, the brakes won't stop the car, and you can't figure out how to turn the ignition off in this new fangled car, the next thing to do is to put it in Neutral or in Park. I'm not 100% sure that this would work but I assume that it would. I've been in a moving car when it was put in Park, and it makes a loud racket, because there's a "Lockout" feature which will prevent a car from going into park while it's moving, but it might disengage the engine from the transmission. I'm not 100% sure on this. However, putting it in Neutral should work, I would think. But I'm not certain on this either. I can tell you this...I used to have a 1987 Mustang GT 5.0 High Output 302 5-speed. What I learned while drag racing it out at Ennis, Texas, is that if you have it first gear, and the throttle nailed to the floor, you can pull back on the stick shift as hard as you want and the car will not come out of gear. Not while the engine is shoving 225 horsepower through the transmission it won't. True, if you push in the clutch, you can change gears then, but if you don't let off the throttle, the engine will red-line in under a second, and will blow in about 2 seconds.

Now, obviously, the vehicle he was in was an automatic, or else he would have just held in the clutch and let the engine red line until it seized. However, if a car with an automatic transmission is floored and you try to take it out of drive while it's floored, I'm not 100% sure that it will come out of gear. I think it will, but I'd hate to bet my life on it and find out going 120 mph up to a T intersection.

Finally, I think what doomed them, however, was not just what was going on with the car, which was unimaginably confusing and horrific. I think what doomed them was "group think".

I believe that everyone in the car deferred to the experience of the driver, and remained calm, assuming that he would figure it out. If you listen to the 911 call, they actually sound remarkably calm when you consider that they're careening down the road at 120 mph with the brakes on fire. The guy in the back seat has the presence of mind to call 911 and have a conversation with the 911 operator before they all plunge to their fiery deaths in a canyon.

What they should have done was got the other guy in the front seat to try to either 1) kill the engine or 2) get it out of gear or 3) get the accelerator unstuck. But I think that everyone just deferred to the patriarch and he was unable to process what was going on, in what must have been a nightmare - trying to control a car careening out of control at 120 mph that isn't even your car.

And I'm not saying I could have done any better, either. Don't get me wrong. I'm just trying to understand what happened, as are a lot of people I think. May they rest in peace.

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Posted by Rob Kiser on October 1, 2009 at 10:00 PM

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