Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Runaway cars.

"Dad, what happens, or what should I do if the car runs amok? I mean, what if the gas pedal sticks?"

"Push the clutch in, just shove it to the floor." Dad said while gesturing. "Then apply the brake and stop. The engine will be revving up and may even blow up. Don't worry about that, first rule boy, people's lives, people's injuries, and then property."

"But, what if it's an automatic transmission?" I asked next.

"Bump it up to Neutral. Same thing. Engine will keep running, but the car can then be slowed, and stopped. Don't kill the engine with the key because most automatic transmissions have engines that also power the brakes. Wait until you get the car stopped before shutting down the engine."

"OK, and if the engine blows before I get stopped?" I asked him.

"Use the emergency brake, just shove it down and try to get out of traffic. Or if it's a handbrake, use it to get the car stopped. That works, but most cars with automatic transmissions are so heavy they don't like to stop on the emergency brake."

I spent the next week or so after school practicing this as my father patiently taught me how to drive. Fast forward ten years or so, I'm listening to a CD and the case is sitting on the seat next to me. I braked and the CD case fell off the seat, but I didn't notice. Instead I found an opening and shifted lanes to the left. When I did, the CD wedged between my handy drink and tissue holding doohickey on the Transmission Hump, and the accelerator pedal. The Ford began to speed up and I removed my foot from the gas pedal. It still sped up. I tapped the brake to disengage the cruise control, and then pushed harder because ahead of me was an 18 wheel truck.

Without thinking about it consciously, my hand reached out and slapped upwards on the transmission lever. The car dropped out of drive and into neutral, the engine began to scream as the depressed gas pedal continued to feed it fuel. I pulled over to the left into the center, put the hazard lights on, and when stopped shut the engine off. A quick inspection found the CD case had gotten into the worst possible position. Yet, it was my Father who saved the day from an accident years before. He had me practice for an eventuality that was so improbable, that most driving manuals only barely mentioned it.

Fast Forward again, and I'm driving a piece of heavy equipment. I approach a stop line and depress the brakes. The vehicle does not slow. The brakes have failed. I pull the emergency brake knob and the vehicle continues forward unimpeded. Realizing it's another runaway, I hit the horn next, and as I shifted to neutral, glided through the intersection with the air horn blowing madly. Upon reaching the other side, I turned the wheel into an open area, and left it fully right once into that area. The momentum is finally bled off the vehicle as it circles clockwise, and I shut the engine down, and call for maintenance to come and repair the equipment. A small valve was stuck, and wouldn't allow the brakes to be applied, or the parking brake to be applied. Once changed out, a total of ten minutes of labor later, I was back at work with no injuries and no damage.

A lesson I learned from my father. Expect things to go wrong. They will do that from time to time. He taught me to always act first to stop the vehicle, and accept potential damage to the vehicle as preferable to the loss of life or limb.

I have to wonder, how many of the recent reports of runaway vehicles would have been solved in seconds if the operators had only just shifted to neutral? Forget all the technology, because technology can and will fail at the worst possible moments. Just that simple operator action, shift to neutral, ends the problem 999 times out of a thousand. For that last one, it's the fault of demonic possession, and all the shifting in the world won't drive that out.

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