Coming Soon To Your New Car: A Brake-Override System

April 13, 2012
Ray LaHood

Ray LaHood

If the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has its way, new cars, trucks, and SUVs will soon come with brake-override systems. That's according to a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that the agency has posted to its website (PDF).

If you follow the news, you can probably guess the inspiration for NHTSA's proposal: the highly publicized recall of millions of Toyota and Lexus vehicles back in 2010.

Approximately 4.2 million of those vehicles were recalled due to ill-fitting floormats, which trapped accelerator pedals. Another 2.3 million were recalled for accelerator pedals that seemed likely to stick in the depressed position, even without a floormat.  

As a result of that recall campaign, Toyota began installing brake-override systems in all its vehicles -- just as BMW, Chrysler, Nissan, and Volkswagen had been doing for some time. Now, NHTSA wants to ensure that all new autos come with brake-overrides to avoid loss of life and highly complicated, panic-inducing recalls in the future.

Which is great. However, it's important to remember that in most of incidents that necessitated the Toyota/Lexus recall, the drivers, not the cars, were at fault.

The accident that took the life of California Highway Patrol officer Mark Saylor and three members of his family was linked to the floormats of Saylor's Lexus ES 350. Others, like the highly publicized crash of Jim Sikes' Toyota Prius, were due to driver error.

In fact, drivers were found to be at fault in the majority of the Toyota/Lexus incidents. Some news outlets even went so far as to point the finger squarely at older drivers.

Of course, none of that is reason for NHTSA not to mandate brake-override systems on new cars. Apart from those folks who oppose regulation of any sort, it would be hard to argue against the proposed new regulations. The technology already exists, and it's straightforward, meaning that it should be a fairly easy fix.

However, if driver error caused most of those Toyota/Lexus accidents, we do have to wonder how much good NHTSA's mandate will do. 

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