I can offer some general observations, but none of them would have much merit in court. First you have to look if your vehicle has the requirement to apply the brake pedal to allow the shifter to come out of "park". I don't know when the lawyers stuck their noses in there to protect us from ourselves, and I don't think every manufacturer adopted that system at the same time. I think it's a horrendous nuisance every time I test-drive a car, and luckily, for a number of additional reasons, I'll never own a car new enough to have that feature. If you recall having to do that to shift from park, or if you see something on the dash to the effect of, "shift interlock equipped", or "apply brake to shift from park", the brakes would have had to have been applied when the vehicle was shifted to "drive".
The reason for this system is to prevent exactly what happened here. It took a college professor to figure out what the lawyers and car engineers couldn't, that was causing these runaway cars. He found that some models have such large transmission humps in the floor that the accelerator pedal had to be moved to the left right to where we're accustomed to finding the brake pedal, and the brake pedal was also moved to the left from its normal location. People were pressing what they thought was the brake pedal based on its common location, but it was actually the accelerator pedal.
For my next observation of great value, all corporate trainers will tell you the brake system on any car is strong enough to prevent the vehicle from starting to move even if the accelerator pedal is pressed all the way to the floor. This goes back to the days of Chrysler's famous 426 Hemi NASCAR engines. The engines were "detuned" to put into production passenger cars, but even with the advertised 425 horsepower and the actual closer-to-500 horsepower, we were assured the brakes could prevent the car from taking off if, lets say the throttle-return springs broke.
This goes way back to the 1060s but it only applied to a car that was standing still. One that's moving takes a lot more braking power to stop and that results in heat buildup in the brake linings. Friction of the brake linings goes down as they get hotter, and eventually it leads to one form of brake fade. Still, this takes some time to happen, so if the vehicle took off as soon as it was shifted into gear, the brakes would have been able to at least slow the car to an easily manageable speed to provide time for other evasive steps.
Next, not to dwell on the negative aspects, these are things the lawyers and insurance investigators will argue. If the engine was running too fast, it should have been turned off. No one would shift into gear thinking that would somehow magically make the engine slow down. High engine speed logically means high vehicle speed and the driver should be aware of that and expect it.
They'll also argue there was more than enough time to turn the ignition switch off or knock the shifter out of "drive". Most mechanics have run into situations of this type and it's not uncommon to have to react quickly. I witnessed one fellow accidentally start an engine from under the hood and have fuel spraying all over that started on fire. He crawled out from under the hood and calmly WALKED to the driver's window to reach in and turn the ignition switch off. That took little enough time that nothing was seriously damaged, and by not panicking, he got the job done faster than if a panic-stricken person tried to run around the car and figure out what to do. The same thing happened to me when one of my students accidentally started a drain pan filled with a flammable cleaning chemical on fire. I just walked over and calmly asked him what he planned on doing about it, then I emptied a garbage can and used it to cover the pan, then walked away chuckling.
The problem is when we're confronted with stressful or dangerous situations that we have no previous experience with, we need time to think and plan so we can react in the most efficient and useful manner. Lawyers don't want to hear that. Any one of us can figure out what we SHOULD have done after we've had time to think about it and analyze the potential results of all the variables. Our brains don't work that fast when it's a new and unfamiliar situation.
My daily fear is what to do if you're suddenly presented with no brakes. Ford had a problem years ago with the bolt between the brake pedal and push rod falling out, then the pedal did nothing except swing freely. I've had numerous steel brake lines rust out and leak leaving me with just half of the system working, but I've also made it 14 miles through a city to get home to repair a no-brake problem. Knowing I had no brakes at all was actually more dangerous than being surprised by a sudden total loss of brakes. In my case, I planned accordingly and drove a long way with a dangerous condition. To be surprised by such an event, you can simply downshift until you're going slow enough to drive onto someone's lawn or steer around obstacles and coast to a stop, ... And STAY there.
The people least likely, in my estimation, to cause a crash related to mechanical problems are those of us, me included, who typically drive older, worn-out cars. We're presented with problems we have to deal with all the time, so there's little that surprises us. Again, my opinion is young girls who are handed a relatively new car expect everything to work as intended, then they don't know what to do when something doesn't. You would be surprised at how many people, (not just girls), who believe you have no steering or brakes when the engine stalls, so they don't even try to avoid a crash. They just go along for the ride. For the record, you lose the power assist. You will never lose the steering or brakes due to a stalled engine. If I were a driving instructor, part of my instruction would be to have the driver turn the engine off in a deserted parking lot, then practice controlling the car to a safe stop.
For my final thought, why was the engine running so fast? A vacuum leak can occur on any car, and that will cause a high idle speed, but without a corresponding increase in power. Cracked or dry-rotted vacuum hoses are a common cause, but even that won't make an engine run at highway speed. The Engine Computer will raise idle speed for certain conditions including the normal "idle flare-up" to 1500 rpm at start-up, but even that isn't nearly fast enough to cause a loss of control. Even a defect like this, if identified, can't be argued in court. The officials will just say you were driving a car with a defect. If the engine started with a high engine speed, it was doing that when it was driven last time too, so you knew about it. Even if you were surprised by this problem suddenly occurring, they'll just say you weren't "in control". As my friend says, (but I'll tone it down a little), "the government is going to get their money".
Almost all manufacturers have gone to the dangerous "throttle-by-wire" system now that replaces an ultra-reliable two-ounce throttle cable with a five-pound computer, two throttle position sensors, and a motor-driven throttle body. This is the system that put Toyota in the news a few years ago, and there's going to be more trouble as these things get older. Luckily your vehicle didn't have that system. I won't ever own one of these either. I don't need a computer deciding at what speed to run my engine. I are purty smart. I can decide that for myself.
The final insult is the fine. Fines are meant to modify undesirable behavior. They are what stops most of us from speeding, passing on a hill, and not bothering to watch for red lights. Anyone with common sense knows a fine is not necessary to stop your wife from driving into a tree again. Some officers look at fines as punishment. Well, the result is the same. They think they're punishing you for undesirable behavior, but the deed is already done, fine or no fine, and the deed isn't likely to be done again, fine or no fine. A lot of police departments have the notion that if a crash occurred, a human was involved and had to be at fault. Try explaining that to all the owners of the 1980s Ford Escort and Tempo "killer cars" with steering linkages that fell apart, often in as little as 15,000 miles. We couldn't keep replacement parts in stock at the mass merchandiser's auto shop where I worked. We got in 40 tie rod ends every Wednesday, and by Saturday we were buying more from local auto parts stores. Should all those owners be fined for crashing after the failed steering system sent them into a ditch or into oncoming traffic? I can understand a fine for intentional inappropriate behavior, after all, the police needs the revenue, but in this case the fine is not going to result in any type of change in behavior, and there's already plenty of negative consequences that could be likened to "punishment". Adding a fine is just kicking the person who is already down.
Saturday, April 11th, 2015 AT 10:06 PM