If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Car drivers and emergencies

Toyota driver in 90 mph runaway terror ride - The Times

A terrified Toyota driver was forced to use a police vehicle to help stop his own runaway car after the accelerator pedal in his Prius became stuck at speeds of more than 90mph on a California highway.

What is the most powerful system on your car? The engine, with 100, 200 or even 300 brake horsepower? Nope.

The braking system of any modern car is worth about 500bhp - that is, it can apply deceleration to the vehicle faster and more effectively than any possible acceleration from the engine.

If your accelerator pedal gets stuck in the fully-down position and your car is rocketing away out of control, simply brake. Brake very hard. The car will stop - guaranteed. If you don't believe me, try this (on private land, wearing a fireproof suit, ACU-approved helmet and with your life insurance intact, obviously, and WEAR YOUR SEAT BELT): drive the car at 50 mph in third gear; put your foot on the throttle as far as it will go, and put your left foot on the brake pedal. Brake hard. The car will not accelerate - indeed, it will start to slow down. (Don't do this for long - it will break.)

In the unlikely even of your brakes suddenly deciding not to work (you did keep up with the servicing and inspection schedule, didn't you?), put the car into neutral (automatics - easy; manuals may need a bit of force) and coast to a halt with the engine screaming.

Turning the engine off (but not to the steering lock position, obviously) while in gear will also work as the movement of the car will keep the engine turning and the power steering working, while the drag of the engine will slow the car down very effectively.

All quite simple. So why are Toyota drivers apparently dying in their hundreds because of a fault in the car? I'm pretty sure it is because no-one knows how cars work any more. We jump in, we fill them with fuel, have them serviced occasionally, and that's it. There's a system to take care of almost any driver error (ABS, traction control, stability programs), and we have become de-skilled. In the 'good old days', you didn't get far if you didn't know the basics of how the car functioned - and, therefore, unexpected mechanical behaviour could be understood and dealt with.

All motorcycles have a kill switch - a big red button on the right handlebar grip. It kills the engine dead. On the Honda, with 125 bhp driving less than a third of a tonne of metal [1], I'm glad it's there - just in case.

[1] That's over 400 bhp per tonne - more than a Ferrari F430 Scuderia (£172,500) at a mere 333 bhp/tonne, or a Maserati 4200GT (£59,950) at a pathetic 230 bhp/tonne. To get better than that, you'd need a Caterham Superlight R500 (£36,995), which nudges the magic 500 bhp/tonne figure. Even a lardy touring motorcycle can beat a supercar where it counts.

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