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Runaway Toyotas: brakes can stop them

Posted by Christopher Shea  February 8, 2010 10:52 AM

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A stuck accelerator is a terrifying prospect, but an article in Car and Driver provides some counterintuitive solace: Modern brakes will stop a vehicle in that situation. In fact, somewhat amazingly, the magazine's editors say that unless you're driving an outlandishly powerful sports car, brakes will stop your vehicle nearly as quickly as if the gas pedal were not stuck.

To test their faith in brakepower, the editors rounded up a V-6 Toyota Camry (one of the vehicles Toyota has recalled), a sportier Infiniti G37, and, for an extreme example, a V-8 Ford Mustang modified to produce 540 horsepower.

With the Camry's accelerator pinned to the floor at 70 m.p.h., the driver of the Camry was still able to stop it in 190 feet. "That's a foot shorter than the performance of a Ford Taurus without any gas pedal problems," writes Dave Vanderwerp, "and just 16 feet longer than with the Camry's throttle closed." The results for the Infiniti were similar: That car took 170 feet to go from 70 to 0 m.p.h. under the out-of-control accelerator condition, compared to 161 feet with the accelerator unpressed--a mere 6 percent difference.

Brakes will stop a vehicle with a stuck gas pedal even at 100 m.p.h., Car and Driver found. The magazine's driver stopped the Camry going that speed, with the gas pedal floored, in 435 feet. Without a depressed gas pedal, the figure was 347 feet. (The numbers for the Infinity were an even-more-impressive 326 feet versus 320 feet.)

Only at the outer limits of engine power can modern cars come close to overpowering their brakes, it seems. The 540-horsepower Mustang took a full 903 feet to stop from 100 m.p.h.  with the throttle open, compared to 324 feet with the throttle closed.

Car and Driver does not excuse Toyota: It says that the manufacturer has been slow to adopt industry-standard technology that cuts off the gas when brakes are applied. That is one of the reforms the car company has pledged to make.

Should you find yourself in a runaway car, incidentally, the best strategy is to shift to neutral while braking.

Car and Driver's counterintuitive findings
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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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