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Bad News For Driving Enthusiasts: Government Ponders Brake Override Mandate

Posted in driving, Safety by Kurt Ernst | March 4th, 2010 | 6 Responses |

Want to learn how to heel toe shift? Better do it soon.

The Toyota unintended acceleration debacle has lawmakers pondering ways to keep our highways safe from flaming death. Most obvious is mandating a brake override system on all new cars sold in the United States, currently under consideration by the FHTSA. Just in case you’ve been living in a cave for the past six months and haven’t heard about brake override systems, they eliminate throttle any time the brake is applied. Put another way, the brake pedal takes priority over the accelerator whenever it is depressed.

In theory, and for the average driver, this is a good thing as it provides one more failsafe to prevent unintended acceleration. If the throttle is closed, even at high speeds, a vehicle’s brakes are capable of stopping the car.

So why is added safety a bad thing? Because by installing brake override systems, you eliminate a driver’s ability to brake stand and launch a car, heel and toe shift and even dry the brakes under throttle in the rain or snow. Is this a big deal? It depends on your perspective.


As a former racer and instructor, there are many times when I’m on the brake and gas simultaneously. My heel-toe technique sucks, but I’ll often drag the brakes to scrub the rotors clean or dry them in the rain. Even braking for a corner, my transition from brake to to gas before downshifting is fast; will a brake override system introduce a lag?

I’ve driven cars with such systems, and they’re fine for transportation. They’re not particularly entertaining and wouldn’t do on a race track. As someone who knows how to drive, I take offense at mandating safety regulations aimed to protect those with limited driving skills. It seems to me that cars don’t need to be safer, drivers do.

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6 Responses

  1. Lightnup says:

    How can a trained police officer drive a runaway car long enough for one of the passengers to dial and connect to 9-1-1, yet not be alert enough to put the car in neutral or turn the engine off during that time? Just wondering.

    Maybe they’ll only put brake overrides in cars with automatics since the first instinct of all but the most hapless stick-shift driver would be to push the clutch in, thus stopping any rapid acceleration.

  2. Mark says:

    While I don’t disagree with you, I do think that it is a bit crazy that the care manufacturer’s don’t have a simple, easy to understand, “this shuts the car down” mode. Modern cars are, in a way, a lot like Airbus Jets. The computer thinks it knows what you want to do and reacts accordingly. Ever seen that video of the Airbus flying into the trees during a flyby? The pilot knew he didn’t want to land but the computer thought it knew better.

    So, they need a “computer bypass” switch somewhere. This is something that would put some fixed gain throttle input into the system (read, “Idle”) while allowing you to keep steering and brake control.

    Oh, and while I do think there are some design issues with modern car control systems, I also think there is a fair amount of “Pilot Error” going on here.

  3. Kurt says:

    Agreed with both of you, on all points. BMW allows riders to switch the ABS system off on their R1200GS motorcycles, because what can save your bacon on pavement can get you seriously injured in the dirt. Likewise, most manufacturers allow you to turn traction control systems off, which is a very good thing for track day driving.

    Toyota’s existing system is supposed to force the throttle into an idle only “failsafe” mode whenever a throttle position error is detected. Sounds great on paper, but what happens if the real problem is an ECU short caused by tin whiskers or corrosion? It may be impossible to duplicate and equally impossible to diagnose.

    As with the whole Audi UA debacle, I think that a large percentage of the problems are ID10T errors. There was a woman on the news yesterday who claimed her Toyota mysteriously accelerated to 15 MPH and almost killed her. If you can’t stop a car from 15 MPH just by standing on the brakes, you probably shouldn’t be driving.

  4. I drive for a living says:

    Thank you for posting this! I drive an automatic, and I often use both gas and brake in the snow. ABS I LOVE on pavement, but I spend 5 months of the year driving through snow. My work vehicles consistantly try to kill me with thier ABS. When freash snow is on ice, the computer will not give you brake pressure. It’s so bad that downshifting will bring me to a stop faster than STANDING on the brakes.

    I don’t have the option of staying home in bad weather. I enjoy driving in it (with an old car), but new cars just make it dangerious. I can read the road conditions, but I can drive to predict what the computer will do.

    From what I understand that trained police oficer was in a car that wouldn’t allow him to shift, and he didn’t know how to turn off the push button ignition.

    These brake overrides wouldn’t be needed if the car just obeyed the driver in the first place.

    I drive for a living. Automakers please stop taking away my ability to determine my own fate.

  5. I drive for a living says:

    Thank you for posting this! I drive an automatic, and I often use both gas and brake in the snow. ABS I LOVE on pavement, but I spend 5 months of the year driving through snow. My work vehicles consistantly try to kill me with thier ABS. When freash snow is on ice, the computer will not give you brake pressure. It’s so bad that downshifting will bring me to a stop faster than STANDING on the brakes.

    I don’t have the option of staying home in bad weather. I enjoy driving in it (with an old car), but new cars just make it dangerious. I can read the road conditions, but I can’t drive to predict what the computer will do.

    From what I understand that trained police oficer was in a car that wouldn’t allow him to shift, and he didn’t know how to turn off the push button ignition.

    These brake overrides wouldn’t be needed if the car just obeyed the driver in the first place.

    I drive for a living. Automakers please stop taking away my ability to determine my own fate

    • Kurt Ernst says:

      The sad truth is that it’s easier (and cheaper) to build cars for the worst drivers than it is to train people how to drive in the first place. If you compare driver training in the U.S. to just about anywhere else in the civilized world, we fail on an epic scale.

      I can see a day in the not-too-distant future where new cars will have zero appeal with all of their systems to keep me safer. Like you, I want a car that does what I tell it, not one that thinks it’s smarter than I am.