Automatic instincts compound Toyota problem

I was reading this story about the family in California who were all killed when their Toyota's accelerator got stuck and the thought struck me: why didn't the guy just take the car out of gear? I wasn't being critical so much as wondering why he didn't do that given he had time to make a phone call.

I thought about it a bit more and figured I was thinking like someone who drives a manual transmission car. When you drive an automatic - as most Americans do and as I did before I left - you don't think about gears. The car's always in "drive", even when you're stopped at a traffic light. If you're used to driving a manual transmission you're always shifting up and down and into neutral at lights, etc.

I think this has an impact on a driver's reactions in situations like poor Mark Saylor found himself in. I'm not talking about judgment so much as instinctual reaction. The instincts you acquire when you drive a manual are different.

The article in the Dublin paper the Evening Herald says there have been thousands of accidents in America attributed to this problem, but only 26 in Europe. There might be differences in the numbers of cars affected between the two continents, but I can't help wondering if the popularity of manual transmissions in Europe accounts for some of that difference. Around 80% of cars sold in Europe have a manual transmission, which is nearly the complete opposite of America.

I had an 'accelerator issue' myself once. A few years ago my car suddenly seemed to lurch and then push on faster than I wanted (it was a throttle issue). My first reaction was simply to put both feet down: one on the brake, but the other on the clutch. As soon as I hit the clutch the engine disengaged, which was a lot better than hoping the brake could hold back the racing engine. I didn't really think about what I was doing, but just reacted that way. Once I felt I had control again, I worked my way down through the gears til I was comfortable with the car.

Someone driving an automatic could accomplish the same thing by shifting to neutral or downshifting, but that's not an instinctive reaction. When you drive an automatic your only instinct would be to hit the brake, which is not really the best answer to the problem.

Few people who drive automatics have used the gears to slow the car. I would guess that a lot of people who drive automatics don't even know they can do that. {Although I do remember my father telling me to downshift if the brakes ever failed in our family's automatic transmission car.}

Using the gears to control the car is not instinctive for people who drive only automatics. It would be much more of a routine action for anyone who drives a manual transmission, something they would do without thinking. Something they would do on instinct.

Instinct is often the only thing you have time for when something unusual happens on the road or when you're heading towards panic. In the case of the Toyota accelerator problem, those who drive manual transmissions would find that their instincts are a great help.

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