NHTSA to mandate accelerator overrides

by Walter Olson on April 25, 2012

We now know that the panicky tales of electronics-driven sudden acceleration in Toyotas, as urged on the nation by trial lawyer allies like Clarence Ditlow and Joan Claybrook, were sheerest fantasy. That’s no real surprise, since earlier reports of mechanically arising sudden acceleration in Audis and other brands of automobile (also urged on the nation by Ditlow et al.) proved equally imaginary.

But the media never learns, and if they don’t, why should the government? So the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is proposing a rule that would require all auto designs to include “override” systems which shut off the accelerator if the brake is pressed. This will have no effect at all on typical “sudden acceleration” accidents, which arise from drivers’ hitting the wrong pedal, since those drivers already imagine themselves to be hitting the brake. They will have little if any effect on the extremely rare floor mat entrapment cases in which an accelerator gets trapped in the depressed position, because drivers can already overcome such acceleration by pressing the brake pedal if it is available, while if it is not available because of mats or other obstructions, the efficacy of the override may fall short of what is hoped.

But at least the government will be able to say that it did something.

I did find it interesting in the Washington Post account that Ditlow seems for the moment to have joined the rest of us in agreeing that pedal misapplication is the big cause of these accidents, the better to afford him a vantage point to criticize NHTSA for Not Doing Enough on that front. That’s quite a change from what you hear from him at the height of these panics, when he tends to talk up every possible cause of unwanted acceleration other than driver error. When the next sudden-acceleration panic breaks out, I fully expect CAS to be back pitching the electronics theories again.

P.S. Plaintiff’s lawyer and longtime Overlawyered favorite Steve Berman asserts that there have been “thousands of crashes, hundreds of deaths,” a claim the National Law Journal’s Amanda Bronstad relays without skeptical comment.

{ 32 comments }

1 DEM 04.25.12 at 12:45 pm

Is there any evidence that pedal misapplication stems from pedal placement as opposed to the sheer inattention of drivers? Even in my current car, the Mazda RX-8, in which the pedals are fairly close together because it is a small sports car (which also has a clutch), I have never come close to hitting the gas when I meant to hit the brake. I can’t imagine “missing” the brake with my foot in a garden-variety Toyota. It seems almost impossible to do so unless the driver is completely distracted. If that’s the case, why are we making yet more mandates that will increase the cost of all cars to prevent injuries to a tiny fraction of drivers who can’t be bothered to exercise even minimal care to protect themselves?

As for floor mat entrapment, concerned drivers are free to remove the floor mat. I once had a floor mat that tended to bunch up, so I took it out. Voila! Cheap, easy, and a 100% reliable fix to the problem. I guess even that small bit of self-reliance is an anathema to today’s prevailing government-centric views.

2 DensityDuck 04.25.12 at 1:53 pm

Before anything else, I agree that this is stupid.

A: All I see in the various posts and articles is that the NHTSA has “proposed” this. What’s the procedure for turning a “proposal” into a regulatory requirement?

B: It looks like lots of automakers are doing this anyway.

3 Alan Gunn 04.25.12 at 1:53 pm

Your Mazda has a stick shift. It’s the automatic-shift people who have a problem. I suspect it’s caused in part by their (mostly) using one foot for both the gas and the brake. When you’re stepping on things you can’t see with only one foot, it’s relatively easy to put that foot in the wrong place, especially if you’re small, new to the car, etc.

4 marco73 04.25.12 at 2:17 pm

Every day here in Florida we have drivers plowing into businesses and offices when the driver (usually elderly) accidentally steps on the gas instead of the brake. These accidents are so common, they don’t even get a mention in the news unless there is a death or some unusual video footage.
In one recent case, the driver continued to hold the gas pedal down after smashing into a store, and started a fire because the tires kept spinning wildly. A store customer finally had to break the driver’s window and drag the driver out, before the car went up in flames.

Sure, put in another electronic nanny. Won’t have any effect.

5 Scott 04.25.12 at 2:18 pm

I think all drive by wire manufactures are moving to an override.

It may help with the rare entrapment case. From my understanding of the most recent real entrapment case the brakes may have over heated, faded and failed because the car was already at highway speed and driver may not have given it full brake until the car stopped.

It would seem reasonable to mandate this for drive by wire cars in in the “next version” the manufactures release. Which my understanding is something they are all going to do anyway.

6 Ron Miler 04.25.12 at 3:05 pm

DEM, the govt is not just trying to protect the neglectful driver, it is trying to protect me with my wife and three kids in the car. This is not just a “protecting people from themselves” issue.

My opinions on this are limited to that comment so save the barrage of unrelated attacks., everyone. On this one anyway. :-)

7 John Fembup 04.25.12 at 3:53 pm

Wrong solution, delivered way too late.

But sure to be accompanied by a snowstorm of regulations, which will make cars more expensive.

Anyone care to rebut the notion that this is now the way we expect our government to function?

Won’t everyone agree that our government is admirably meeting that expectation?

8 roy 04.25.12 at 4:09 pm

If you’re stopped on a steep hill, giving it a little gas before letting off the brake is a good way to avoid rolling back into a car that stopped too close or a pedestrian. Given that the proposed technology would exclude that proven safety technique in order to solve an imaginary problem, it could end up hurting more people than it saves.

9 Jim Collins 04.25.12 at 4:42 pm

DD,
There is not going to be a law. Once the NHTSA makes a “proposal” the manufacturers won’t take the chance on somebody having an acctual problem, because they know that the lawyers will have a field day with it. So they go ahead and install the cutoff and pray that it doesn’t cause an accident.

10 Roman 04.25.12 at 6:32 pm

Things cannot be made foolproof, there are too many fools. We are used to headlines and soundbites, few people read the details, just believe the hyped headline.

11 Jerryskids 04.25.12 at 6:55 pm

@Ron Miler: If you are new to this site, you should know that this is not simply a matter of making things safer for everybody. If you want safety, why not try not taking your wife and kids out on the road or buying an Abrams tank? That would be much safer – but you don’t even have to do a cost/benefit analysis to know this is a silly idea. If you look at the benefits of installing accelerator over-rides, you have to look at the cost as well. Even at the margins, every time you mandate one more feature in a car and thereby drive up the price of a new car there will be some number of people who will decide to keep an older, more dangerous, car a little longer. Plenty of studies have been done on how much safer cars with airbags are than cars without airbags; to my knowledge no study has ever been done on how many people were killed by driving old clunkers because they couldn’t afford a new car with said airbags.

The classic example of this was the requirement that babies in airplanes needed their own seats (and tickets for those seats) because babies held in the lap are not as safe as babies in a seat. Since the cost of flying with a baby went up, there were at least some people who chose to drive rather than fly (which is far more dangerous than flying), making the safety regulation responsible for less safety.

12 Bumper 04.25.12 at 8:11 pm

People who can do, people who can’t go to work for the government.

To make the override work one has to apply the brake, 99% of drivers use the same foot to brake that they do to accelerate. If they could get their foot off the accelerator to brake they wouldn’t still be barreling down the road. And don’t suggest they will use their other foot to brake, if grandpa had that much where with all, he wouldn’t have kept his foot on the accelerator in the first place. This is an very occasional problem that doesn’t need a solution, save take the keys away when grandpa shouldn’t be driving anymore. Any day now this same brain trust will require permanent training wheels on motorcycles.

13 OBQuiet 04.25.12 at 11:30 pm

I don’t understand the fuss about the proposed rule!

If we would just let the NTSB and the lawyers load cars up with every safety system they can imagine, we would all be MUCH safer from auto accidents.

I mean, once the base price get above $80k, think how many fewer cars there will be to even cause accidents!

Anyone remember the Larry Niven Story: Safe at Any Speed?
http://variety-sf.blogspot.com/2007/12/larry-niven-safe-at-any-speed-short.html

14 David Schwartz 04.26.12 at 12:58 am

roy: This should be harmless. The override won’t have to kick under those conditions. Since it’s harmless, cheap to do, and might help in a few rare cases (mostly due to inadequate driver education), automakers were doing it anyway. The benefits and the harms will both likely be approximately equal — nearly zero.

There is really only one case where this makes a difference, and it’s so rare it may never have happened. That’s the case where you press on the accelerator to climb a hill and then ease off the accelerator as you crest. Your accelerator sticks, but you don’t realize it because you’re expecting to accelerate as you go downhill anyway. Then, later as your speed gets too high, you press on the brake. But when your brake doesn’t respond as you expect, you don’t think the accelerator could be sticking because you didn’t recently press the accelerator.

As a result, you may not think to shift in neutral or try to unstick the brake. You may think your brakes are failing (and pump them or the like) when in fact they are fine.

15 John David Galt 04.26.12 at 1:00 am

So it will no longer be possible to start a stick-shift vehicle on an upslope without rolling back into somebody? Great thinking …NOT!

16 William Nuesslein 04.26.12 at 9:37 am

The override is ridiculous but should be cheap. A rule is necessary, not for safety, but to protect against dual suits. One: “My client died because his car did not have a cheap override. The other: “My client died because of the override – the car moving on a hill for example.”

The dual suits were used for safety windows. One: “The window was too strong and prevented my client from leaving his burning car.” The other: “My client was thrown out of his car through a broken window and died.”

Lawyers are trained to argue either side of an argument and there is no mechanism to curb dual arguments. People have a tough time accepting dumb luck as an explanation for a harmful event although this principle is the heart of the insurance industry.

17 Jim Collins 04.26.12 at 11:11 am

My engineering professor used to say “As soon as you design something idiot proof, somebody comes up with an improved idiot”.

18 DEM 04.26.12 at 11:16 am

Since it’s harmless, cheap to do, and might help in a few rare cases (mostly due to inadequate driver education), automakers were doing it anyway. The benefits and the harms will both likely be approximately equal — nearly zero.

_______________

Some automakers were including this feature in some cars, so let’s go ahead and mandate it in every car, even if the benefits are nearly zero? I don’t understand that at all. Maybe I am misunderstanding your post, David, but you seem to be advocating for a mandate that you acknowledge has a benefit of nearly zero. That’s an odd standard by which to judge the merits of public policy.

Even if you are right that ther cost is nearly zero — which I strongly doubt — that simply means the costs and benefits net out to make this an almost entirely pointless exercise.

19 GregS 04.26.12 at 11:57 am

Re: “So it will no longer be possible to start a stick-shift vehicle on an upslope without rolling back into somebody?”

I don’t see how using the brake is even possible in this case. One foot is going to be on the clutch pedal, and the other on the gas, so how can the driver also be applying his foot to the brake pedal (unless he’s using the same foot on both gas and brake, which is pretty dangerous).

Anyway, the driver should be using the handbrake to keep the car from rolling backwards when starting on an upslope. That’s how I was taught to do it and it’s easy to do safely. But I’ve noticed that a surprising number of drivers don’t realize that the handbrake is for any other use than as a parking brake.

20 Ron Miler 04.26.12 at 12:08 pm

This is specifically the conversation I asked to avoid. What I said is manifest: a part of the calculus of “what to do?” has to include calculation of all risks – not just the less than half of the equation that was pointed out.

JerrysKids, let me start of by saying I really don’t like your name. Maybe your name is Jerry and you have kids. I still find it annoying. Because whether you have some foundation for your cl

Yes, I’m new to Overlawyered. I just got off the boat yesterday. But there are other places where you can learn such elaborate concepts as cost/benefit. What we are talking here, I think, is where we should draw the line. Most Americans – the vast, vast majority – believe there there should be safety requirements placed on car makers. Where we differ is the question of degree. So the debate among reasonable people is how stringent these requirements should be.

I’m pointing out you to access where to draw the line – without rendering an actual opinion on the details because I’m not an expert on this issue (none of the rest of your are either but that has not restrained you) – is that we have to consider all of the potential risks.

(By the way, Bumper, I do not think that reasonable people attack indiscriminately attack any entire class of people – government workers – without any real foundation. Government has good employees and bad employees. So does every business or organization.)

21 Bumper 04.26.12 at 1:09 pm

Ron Miller,

Of course it is, read the news, every day there is another story about another three letter agency caught, uncovered, etc. trying to screw, blue and tattoo us-their employers. EPA, DOJ, FDA, DOE, they don’t have the interest of America or the citizens of the country at heart. It’s world domination they are after, starting with us. (Sarcasm over the top intentionally) They produce nothing but strife and oppression. And yes there probably are some “good” people that work for those acronyms , but if they were really that good they would quit and get a real j0b.

BTW since you are so worried about names, why do you misspell yours. I don’t notice any Milers at the firm of Miller and Zois.

22 No Name Guy 04.26.12 at 1:19 pm

Greg S

A common (at least to me) technique would be to brake with the ball of the right foot, twist and use the right heel on the gas, while operating the clutch with the left foot.

And yes, the parking brake is also a great choice in this situation, (for the other readers) however, in my truck, I have to bend well forward and lean to the side reach the handle with the left hand – not all standard transmission vehicles have a center console mounted parking / E brake.

23 Richard Nieporent 04.26.12 at 1:54 pm

Lighten up Ron; you know we love you. I think you picked a particularly bad week to defend government employees, with all of the scandals/inappropriate behavior at the GSA, SS, and TSA that has made the news. I am sure that you realize that the negative comments being made about government workers is hyperbole; however, there are too many “bad apples” to ignore. These folks do not seem to realize that as public servants they are not supposed to be screwing (both figuratively and literately) the public. When it comes to the TSA employees it would appear that they enjoy abusing people and that their management does not give a damn. When was the last time you heard that a TSA employee was fired for inappropriate behavior? To add insult to injury, only government employees get the “dreaded” punishment of leave with pay when their illegal/inappropriate behavior is made known. Why is Mr. Neely still employed at GSA? If he worked for a private company, he would have been fired immediately.

24 DEM 04.26.12 at 2:42 pm

Most Americans – the vast, vast majority – believe there there should be safety requirements placed on car makers. Where we differ is the question of degree. So the debate among reasonable people is how stringent these requirements should be.
_____________________________

And with this, Ron has placed the notion to consumer self-protection and individual responsibility beyond the scope of reasonable debate. None of us can decide whether want to buy a car without airbags — that decision belongs to the government. From seatbelts to airbags to override systems designed to keep inattentive drivers from accelerating when they mean to brake, it’s all the same thing, right?

25 Ron Miller 04.26.12 at 2:51 pm

Ron Miler is the alias I use so I’m incognito here. You guys broke the freaking code. If I had know this place was filled with Columbos, I would have one with Don Miler. (Also, can’t we all just agree that any play on Jerry’s Kids is a bad idea? Can I just get that from you guys? I don’t ask much, really)

In far too many instances, government is going to be inefficient by its inherent nature. There is no doubt about this. I still think it is a regrettable mistake to paint the individual employees with a single defamatory brush. Many departments of the federal government are really hard to get into and have unbelievable qualified people. (The State Department comes to mind.) We should be focusing on trying to understand the efficacy limitations of government in general and do the best we can to overcome them. Because that is the real problem. It is not, in my humble opinion, the employees themselves.

26 Ron Miller 04.26.12 at 5:37 pm

DEM, the clear point of my post is that they are not all the same. Few people agree there should be no oversight and not safety criteria for cars. There is sharp disagreement to be sure. But it is entirely accurate to say that most people believe there should some standards even those who are generally against standards elsewhere. Why? Because information about what is safe is not perfect or linear and having someone set minimal standards is necessary.

If you disagree, it does not mean you are wrong and it hardly forecloses discussion of the matter. Nothing I have said suggests or implies that it does.

27 Jim Collins 04.26.12 at 6:06 pm

So what happens when the accelerator lockout malfunctions and causes an accident? I have always been taught that the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle is best. Now the addition of a lockout just increases the number of possible malfunctions, without adding any real benefit.

28 Bill Alexander 04.26.12 at 7:50 pm

Actually, on fly by wire cars, which I expect they all are or soon will be, it just takes a small amount of computer code to accomplish the lockout. If that part of the computer fails, it will probably be during a complete computer failure, at which time the car goes into a get to the side of the road mode.

29 Fox 2! 04.26.12 at 10:58 pm

Bill Alexander

“it just takes a small amount of computer code to accomplish the lockout”

This will be what DO-178 calls Level A code – life critical. Which is not cheap, even for a single line. And no Level A function is carried out in a single line of code. This will probably require 5 to 10 requirements, 50 to 100 lines of code, 20 hours of reviews, and probably 50 hours of test development and qualification testing. Plus additional testing on every computer produced. And that assumes that all the functionality can be incorporated into one computer. Double or triple that if two or more computers have to be involved (e,g., throttle/brake pedal monitoring, fuel injection, anti-lock brake module).

There is no such thing as a “simple” code change.

30 David Schwartz 04.27.12 at 2:34 am

Fox 2! That would be a good argument if we were talking about mandating it be added to existing cars. So long as the mandate only applies to new designs, it will have near-zero cost. (And near-zero benefit, because anyone designing a new throttle system today would likely include it anyway if for no other reason than to avoid having to justify to a jury why you didn’t include it.)

31 Mannie 04.27.12 at 10:23 am

This just makes used cars more attractive. I keep saying my next “new car” is going to be a 57 Chevy. I can still work in them. I can’t identify half the parts on a new car.

32 Fox 2! 04.27.12 at 12:24 pm

David Schwartz

So long as the mandate only applies to new designs, it will have near-zero cost

No, the cost accrues whether it is for new cars or for retrofitting existing vehicles. It may not be called out as a line item in somebody’s budget and schedule, but the cost is there and allocable to that function. Functions, requirements and lines of code are countable, and industry standard cost models will tell how much and how long it took to implement them.

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