It was painful to watch. The video was posted by Top Gear Philippines (TGP) on their Facebook fan page.

The clip showed a white Mitsubishi Montero Sport in a parking lot filled with motorcycles on one side and cars on the other. The driver was attempting to park but he seemed to have difficulty doing so. After several failed maneuvers, the driver and front passenger swapped places—perhaps in the hope that the passenger will have better luck slotting the car into the parking space.

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You could see that the brake lights were working when the first driver was maneuvering the car. But they weren’t on when the Montero—with the second driver now behind the wheel—shot backward, slamming into parked motorcycles, before rocketing forward and crashing into parked cars. Another obvious clue was the huge puff of smoke from the tailpipe.

Most, if not all, victims of sudden unintended acceleration (SUA) claim they were stepping on the brakes. But in his panic/confusion (who wouldn’t panic or be confused when the vehicle you just sat in suddenly took off?), the second driver was actually flooring the accelerator.

Claims of unintended acceleration have been around for over 30 years, the most infamous incidents of which involved Audi in America in the mid-80’s. SUA was blamed for six deaths and 700 accidents involving the Audi 5000 midsized sedan.

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The TV show 60 Minutes, then hosted by a young Diane Sawyer, carried extensive coverage, only to admit in the end that they tampered with their test car to make it shoot forward without the driver stepping on the gas. Needless to say, Audi’s US sales plunged (and 60 Minutes‘ viewership skyrocketed). Ultimately, the US courts ruled “pedal misapplication” on the part of the drivers. But it would take Audi almost a decade to recover their sales (at one point the brand considered leaving the US market).

But it wasn’t just Audi. Unintended acceleration has happened to various car brands in several other countries. Not all have resulted in class action lawsuits or congressional hearings. Still, each investigation has led to the conclusion that the drivers had stepped on the gas and not on the brake as they believed.

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My personal and professional take:

  • It is impossible for any car to just take off on its own without somebody stepping on the gas.
  • There are many people (including the motorists in the TGP video who could barely park a car) who have dangerously poor driving skills.
  • Any production car, from a tiny Toyota Wigo to a 600-plus-horsepower Ferrari or Lamborghini, will have brakes strong enough to keep the car from moving an inch if you step on the brake then floor the gas. I know—I’ve tried. The most that can happen is that you’ll have a spectacular burnout you see in Hollywood movies where the rear wheels are spinning and creating lots of tire smoke—but the car stays where it is. The brakes—especially the very powerful front brakes—will always win. People who swear their foot was firmly on the brake but the car still shot forward should go to driving school again. Or at least just stop the BS.
  • If there are any design flaws in the afflicted cars, it might be the close positioning of the gas and brake pedals which may confuse a driver and the absence of a shift lock that prevents shifting into Drive or Reverse unless the driver’s foot is REALLY on the brake pedal. Thankfully most cars (but not all—and not the Montero Sport during its first few years on the market here) already have this shift lock feature. Another possible cause is pedal entrapment on the carpet or floor mat—something that afflicted as many as 10 million Toyotas in the U.S. for which the company instituted no less than seven recalls.

Unintended acceleration has happened to a former classmate driving a 1997 Mitsubishi Galant. It has happened to a former boss (who reversed into a car behind him, shifted to Drive in a panic, then crashed into the car in front of him—just like the Montero Sport in the video), and to my mother-in-law, who crashed her car into an electric pole. That boss and my mother-in-law were driving 1996 Honda Accords. They all had automatic transmissions. And they all admitted stepping on the accelerator by mistake. These three accidents happened more than 10 years ago.

As I have said, these incidents have been happening to different car brands.

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I once had a 1983 model Ford Telstar with an automatic. Automatics were not yet commonplace then, even in Japan (where the car was sold as a Mazda 626). That car had a big red indicator light in the instrument panel that went on whenever you stepped on the brake. Thirty years ago, when people were just moving to automatics from manuals, Mazda/Ford already realized that people might get startled when they shifted to Reverse or Drive and their foot was on the gas when they thought it was on the brake. (Shift locks were probably not yet invented then.) Hence that big, red indicator light to confirm that they, indeed, were stepping on the brakes.

Imagine if a driver’s foot is resting on the gas pedal (but he/she thinks it’s on the brake); when he/she shifts to D or R, the car will jerk forward (or backward). And since the driver already thinks his foot is on the brake, guess what he’ll do next…

Best bet if your car suddenly accelerates on you (for whatever reason) and won’t stop (again, for whatever reason): Slip the gear lever into neutral. That SHOULD dramatically slow the car! Then hopefully you have enough sense (and quick thinking/reaction) to realize that you’ve been stepping on the gas and move your foot to the brake.

Because cars that accelerate on their own despite their owners’ best efforts to stop them SIMPLY. DON’T. EXIST.