Having complete control over your vehicle is essential to your safety on the road, so it can certainly be jarring (and frightening) when your car suddenly accelerates by itself while you’re driving. There have been several reports of sudden unintended acceleration in the US over the past few years, and while incidents are few and far between, their consequences have been alarming.
However, most heavily publicized cases of unintended acceleration have not been confirmed. There is yet to be a case investigated by the National Highway Traffic System Administration (NHTSA) where it was proven that an error in the vehicle’s electrical system was at fault.
Federal law mandates redundancy in computers, so automakers incorporate multiple pedal sensor inputs of the same kind—otherwise the vehicle’s electrical system shuts down.
What is Sudden Unintended Acceleration?
Sudden unintended acceleration is a glitch that happens when the vehicle (supposedly) accelerates on its own without driver input. In some cases, drivers also complain of loss of braking ability during an unintended acceleration event.
Over the years, the public has speculated it to be the cause of several crashes involving vehicles from different automakers. Such incidents have brought about recalls of the involved vehicles for the safety of the public and for further investigation.
What Causes Acceleration Problems?
In most cases, sudden unintended acceleration supposedly occurs when the car is in motion. As mentioned above, although there has been a lot of speculation as to why this can happen, in major investigations, driver error is often found to be the cause.
The problem happens when instead of stepping on the brakes, the driver steps on the gas. Pedal misapplication can easily be avoided by being mindful of where you step.
Recorded Incidents of Sudden Unintended Acceleration
The first recorded case of sudden unintended vehicle acceleration in the U.S. can be traced as far back as the 1980s, when Audi had to recall 250,000 units of 1978-1986 model 5000 cars. At that time, there were around 271 injuries and 5 deaths recorded involving the Audi 5000.
However, in 1989, investigators found out that these accidents happened due to pedal misapplication—it turns out that Audi’s placement of pedals were different from what car owners in the U.S. were used to, causing them to step on the wrong pedal.
In 2010, CNN reported that Toyota recalled around 8.1 million vehicles as a result of the NHTSA’s formal investigation regarding brake problems in the 2010 Toyota Prius. The automaker has since settled 537 claims of serious injuries and deaths allegedly caused by incidents of sudden acceleration in several of their vehicles.
But after investigating the charges against Toyota, it was uncovered that most were just because of loose floor mats. Because of this, a recall was ordered and dealers were advised to update the accelerator pedal assembly to keep the pedal from being entrapped in the floor mat.
Nowadays, the majority of vehicles have clips to secure the driver’s side floor mat.
Suffice to say, there really haven’t been any proven cases of sudden unintended acceleration in the major investigations cited above—but it still helps to be mindful of its “causes” to be safe.
What to Do When Your Car Accelerates on Its Own
Now that you know what causes sudden unintended acceleration, what should you do in case it happens? As a preventive measure, be mindful of the arrangement of your pedals and floor mats. Master their locations and ensure that your foot is hitting the right pedal when you drive.
Also, see to it that your floor mat is laid out properly and not blocking the accelerator pedal in any way.
Although sudden acceleration is usually attributed to human error, vehicle faults aren’t completely out of the question.
Should you find yourself in this situation, here are some tips:
1. Resist the urge to panic.
It can be difficult to stay calm when you find your car suddenly accelerating on its own. However, you will need a clear mind to get yourself off the road and to a safe place.
2. Hit the brakes.
Step on the brake pedal and hold it with all your might to maximize the vacuum power assist.
3. Go neutral.
Keep your vehicle in neutral as you try to bring it to safety and try to go in a straight line. If you must change lanes, take extra care to manage your movement better.
However, if your vehicle won’t shift to neutral, turn off the engine immediately.
4. Make sure the key is in the ignition.
This will prevent your steering wheel from jamming once your engine is turned off.
5. Ask for help.
Once you’ve safely parked your vehicle, call an automotive professional to help you fix it.
If you find your car accelerating on its own, check if you’re actually stepping on the right pedal before considering it a probable case of unintended acceleration.
You might just not be aware of the exact placement of your brake pedal. Also, check if your floor mats are getting in the way of the pedals or causing your foot to slip as you move your foot between the brakes and the gas.
If you’ve confirmed that it wasn’t a mistake on your end or with the floor mat, and you’re still unsure about what caused your car to accelerate on its own, have an expert mechanic take a look.