Sunday, August 31, 2014

PSA Or, if you love them…

... teach them. A Public Service Announcement.

Cars, that is, automobiles (remember how Tony Curtis said this during The Great Race) fail.

Sure, you say, I know that. Batteries die, leaving me stranded. Engines knock, leak oil and stop running.

Those aren’t exactly what I’m thinking of, because many failures of the automotive system happen while the vehicle is at rest, possibly due to the failure.

However, cars also fail while being operated, and as recent news reports remind us, with sometimes devastating effect. Two examples which have happened to your faithful scribe: stuck at wide open throttle (WOT), and its opposite, the engine suddenly stopping because the ignition circuit opened.

Recently, these faults have been reported in various Toyota and GM vehicles, respectively. Not for me. My WOT experience came in a early 80’s Mazda GLC, and the key switch failure, in an even earlier (late 60’s) VW Type 3.

As you can see, these failures aren't new.

In my case, the WOT occurred because the carburetor (remember those?) gummed up (not from lack of exercise, I assure you!) and once depressed, failed to return. In the Toyotas reported (both Prius and Camry), the root cause seemed to be that the floor mats became entangled with the accelerator pedal, holding the throttle open.

After the Type 3 stopped running a couple of times while calmly driving along, the dealer replaced the ignition switch, advising us not to hang so many keys on the key ring. Since no wide-spread reports of similar issues arose, we concluded, as the dealer obviously had, that the weight of the several keys (and other objects) eventually allowed excess movement within the switch, and the engine shut off. In the recent GM case, the design of the switch has been implicated.

Obviously, no deaths resulted from my experiences. Unfortunately, in other cases, this was not the case. Why?

Because I knew what to do, had enough experience and the time to actually do it. How about you?
What do you do? Do you know? Does everyone you care about know what to do? Think about that for a second.

In both cases, shift into Neutral. In a standard shift vehicle, depress the clutch. DO NOT turn the key off. (That locks the steering wheel, preventing the next step.)

In the WOT case, the car will begin to slow. Look behind you, signal, and steer to the side of the road. Don’t worry about the engine over-revving until you are stopped at the side of the road. Unless the engine self-destructs, you’ll still have power brakes and steering, and lights. When you are stopped, turn the engine off, turn on your emergency flashers and take a breath. If the problem is a simple as the floor mat or carpeting getting stuck in the throttle, take the darn thing out and throw it in the trunk. (Can you tell I hate loose things under my feet when I drive? You should, too.)

If the ignition switch has failed, due to misuse or design defect, in fact, if the engine suddenly stops for any reason while driving in traffic, again, shift into Neutral or depress the clutch. In this case, the vehicle will begin rolling, and feel like it’s speeding up, since the load of the dead engine isn’t acting on the transmission. (It’s not speeding up; it’s just not slowing as quickly.)

With the engine stopped, the power steering and power brakes will lose their power assist; they will still operate, but more force will be required. Look around at traffic while you begin to steer for the road side, out of the traveled lanes. If the ignition switch has failed, you may not have lights or turn signals, so pick your path off the road carefully. The emergency flashers will still work, if you remember where the switch is. When you stop, turn on the flashers (if you haven't), Now, you can play with the switch to determine if you can get the engine running, and if you trust it to get you to your mechanic.

That’s all pretty straight-forward. I’d like those of us teaching others to drive to remember that experiencing a thing is much more effective as a teaching tool than just reading or hearing it. As Graham Nash wrote: “Teach your children well.”

Find a large, empty parking lot. While driving, have whoever’s controlling the car bump the shifter into Neutral while the car is moving, to give them the feeling of what will happen. Do it yourself first, so the fear of damaging the car by shifting while rolling will fade. Obviously, take care not to force the shifter into Reverse.

Once that exercise has been done to death, again, have the car operating slowly, and turn the ignition switch to the first stop from run. The engine will stop, but not lock the steering wheel. Bump the shifter to Neutral. The object is to allow the driver to feel how the vehicle reacts with no power assist. If a failure happens in traffic, it shouldn’t be a surprise how much effort is needed to stop or to steer.

In a standard transmission, your driver will already be aware of how the car feels rolling; you’ll just need to remind them that it’s a valid response to either of these scenarios.  Don’t forget the dead engine exercise, though.

I can’t give good advice if your car has a sequential transmission. Check the operator’s manual to determine if there’s an override to shift directly to Neutral. If so, make sure everyone who uses the car understands where it is, and how to use it.

Do these enough that the driver is comfortable with what happens in these, thankfully uncommon, occurrences. If you are sending or have sent a child or spouse to auto driving school, ask what unexpected and emergency events they cover, and do the students actually experience them. The part of this exercise that will take the most time is probably finding a suitable lot.

Automobiles, and trucks too, fail. Don’t lose someone you love for lack of experience dealing with what can happen. I hope you never need this information, but even more, I hope that if you do, you know how to react.

Comments welcome as usual.