One Lesson From The Toyota Flap: Americans Can’t Drive

U.S. drivers seem clueless about what to do in an emergency.

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The modern automobile is a marvel of simplicity: You just get in and turn it on, and with no effort at all you're piloting a two-ton contraption with thousands of moving parts and dozens of computer modules.

There's not much else in our everyday lives that makes mind-boggling complexity so user-friendly. Driving requires no knowledge whatsoever of mechanics, combustion, electronics, aerodynamics, chemistry, software or physics, even though all those things are all essential elements of a car. There are even more systems on the way for handling tasks that used to be the responsibility of humans. New cruise-control systems sense when there's a car ahead of you, and automatically apply the brakes. Other sensors let you know when a car's in your blind spot on either side, so you don't collide while changing lanes. And we may soon be able to tell our cars what radio station or climate setting we want, instead of poking at buttons.

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But while learning to rely on all these fancy new features, we may have forgotten how to drive. While on his "runaway Prius" odyssey, for example, driver James Sikes says his car sped to 94 miles per hour on a California freeway, forcing him to jam the brakes so hard that it lifted his rear end off the seat. Sikes also said that he reached down with one hand to see if a floor mat was jammed against the gas pedal (it wasn't), while steering the maniacal Prius with the other hand.

But Sikes didn't do a couple of other simple things, even though a police dispatcher talking to him on the phone told him to: Put the car in neutral, and try to turn it off. Automotive experts say that if he had done either, there's no way the car could have continued revving. Sikes explained that he was afraid the car would flip if he put it into neutral, and he suggested that he may not have heard the suggestion to turn off the car, since he had to put his phone down to drive.

Flip? Cars don't flip if you disengage the engine, they just slow down. Sikes may have been worried that if he accidentally slipped into reverse instead of neutral, he may have exerted a countervailing force on the car that would send it flying. (He wouldn't have; at highway speeds, the car would have gone into neutral if he shifted into reverse.) Even so, would taking a chance on neutral be more nerve-wracking than reaching down and fiddling with a floor mat at 90 miles per hour?

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When engineers from Toyota inspected Sikes's 2008 Prius, they found that the front brakes were completely worn—but nothing else was wrong with the car. (We shouldn't take Toyota's word for it, but government investigators and a Congressional staffer were also present, and so far they've blessed Toyota's analysis by not contradicting it.) Assuming this is true, Sikes either deliberately wore down the brakes by tapping them over and over, so they'd overheat and fail—which is Toyota's implication—or he neglected to replace worn brakes, to the point of danger.

Even if Sikes turns out to be a fraudster or embellisher, it doesn't absolve Toyota from quality and safety lapses that have endangered customers, wrecked the company's image and caused the global recall of more than 8 million vehicles. But American drivers aren't looking so great either. With Toyota's "sudden acceleration" problem in the headlines for two months, we've suddenly been hearing about Americans who routinely drive their cars into poles, walls, garage doors, and ponds, without the usual impetus of something going wrong on the road around them. These unprovoked, one-car accidents are usually "linked" to Toyota's sudden-acceleration problem, and some of them may in fact stem from flaws in the cars. But it seems extremely unlikely that all of these mishaps are due to roving floor mats, gas-pedal friction or evasive gremlins that inhabit automotive computers.

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Back in the 1980s, Audi suffered from complaints that some of its vehicles lurched forward for no apparent reason, which terrified drivers and nearly drove Audi out of the U.S. market. Then a government investigation found that the problem wasn't with Audi, it was with Audi's customers. Drivers were literally pressing the gas pedal instead of the brake, then convincing themselves—for reasons involving legal claims, pride or both—that the resulting mishap was the car's fault, not theirs. Carmakers ultimately adopted a new safety feature that required drivers to press the brake before they could shift out of park—a locking mechanism meant to prevent human error, not mechanical failure.

It's tempting to believe that a rich, foreign corporation like Toyota is putting profits over the safety of its customers—except that evidence of breathtakingly bad driving is on display everywhere, every day. Monitor a typical highway for an hour, and you'll see all the automotive archetypes: The tailgater, the speeder, the spastic lane-changer, the distracted drifter, the overladen hauler, the creeping granny, and of course the enraged finger-giver. There are times when it seems a miracle that there aren't 10 or 20 times as many crashes on U.S. roads.

American drivers should be better-trained and better-behaved, and they should learn how to use the technology that their lives—and other people's lives—depend on. The first time you get into a Prius, for example, you're confronted with some oddities. You turn the car on and off by pressing a button, not turning a key. To turn off the car in an emergency, you have to hold the button for three seconds. The electronic shifter is more like a joystick than a mechanical lever, with a light tap or two being all that's needed to change gears. But the Prius's controls are arguably easier to manage than conventional ones, and you'd think that anybody owning such a car would spend a little time reading the manual and getting to know how the car works. Wouldn't you?

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Maybe not. There's no requirement that drivers understand how their cars function, and we do seem to be slipping down the scale of automotive literacy. The majority of Americans can no longer drive a car with a manual transmission, which is why only about 7 percent of new cars have them. (Even some so-called automotive journalists can't drive a manual!) Fewer and fewer people know how to change a tire, jump-start a battery, or fill basic fluids. And every time gas prices rise, millions of drivers seem astonished to learn that you can improve your mileage by properly inflating your tires and accelerating more gently. So maybe it's not a surprise that some drivers confuse the gas pedal with the brake. Just don't blame them.