When your battery fails and your gravity works

What do a car that won’t start and a bus that won’t stop have in common?

Both are consequences of our reliance on computers instead of mechanical interlocks.

I was asked to look at a rental car that wouldn’t start. I got in. Turn the wheel to unstick the key, turn the key, and start it up.

She’s only been driving in this millennium and never met a sticky mechanical steering interlock. Turning a car on and off is a button press, no more. Keys and parking brakes are exotic zoo creatures instead of life companions.

The law says when you turn off a car the steering wheel is supposed to lock. The details are up to the manufacturer. When I learned to drive there was a mechanical connection between lock cylinder and steering wheel. Sometimes that connection worked in reverse. The steering wheel would lock the key in the off position until you turned the wheel to relieve the pressure.

We didn’t listen to lectures about DUI. We learned how to drive. We learned how to unstick the key. We learned how to manipulate the gas pedal during a cold or warm start in cold or warm weather.

I don’t miss carburetors. I don’t miss the steering interlock in particular, except for what it represents.

I miss safety features and simplicity. Which go together.

People used to use parking brakes. We also called it the emergency brake. I have used it in a genuine emergency when my brakes failed. Because I used that brake every time I parked I didn’t need to think about what do to when the brake pedal went to the floor.

Trucks were even better. Another childhood memory is the sound of air brakes. Truck brakes fail in the on position. A dead truck sits still thanks to a simple mechanical system.

Not so a modern bus, a driver in Springfield, Massachusetts learned last year. The bus was having trouble. He said he was told to it off and on again and maybe the problem would go away. So he got out and disconnected the battery.

According to the manufacturer, the interlock brakes don’t work without the computer. The bus with 20 passengers rolled down a hill with the driver chasing after it.

Also according to the manufacturer there was a parking brake the driver should have set. Who uses parking brakes? We got so used to the computer doing everything that we forgot how to do it ourselves.

Buried in the tedious details of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (49 CFR 571.105 S5.2.2) is an option for car makers to omit the manual parking brake if they would rather use a computer. The shifter on most cars isn’t connected to anything except the computer. Selecting “park” or pressing the mysterious “P” button (nobody presses the P button) doesn’t stop you when your brakes fail. It doesn’t stop you when your computer fails. But it stops the government from ordering a recall.

For most people parking a car means pressing the on/off button, getting out, and hoping the car doesn’t roll away.

I wonder why the creators of the seat belt nag alarm never thought to require a handbrake nag alarm.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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