Why pedal mixups are dangerously common

This is a recurring problem for new drivers and seniors alike. There are several reasons why many drivers make this very basic mistake, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

The mixup usually happens in confined spaces.

When a driver is using the brake pedal to govern the vehicle speed in a parking lot, traffic jam, drive-thru or any other place where an idle speed will be sufficient to complete the chosen manoeuvre, there is always the potential for a pedal mix-up. Drivers will often feel the sensation of movement when manipulating the brake pedal. Their reasoning is as follows: “If the pedal I am using is making the car go forward, then the other pedal must make it stop.” When a driver is startled and the vehicle has been recently started, a strong idle will often vault the vehicle forward and create the illusion of intended propulsion. The natural thing to do seems to slam a foot on the other pedal, namely the gas pedal. I have seen this happen in the driving school car hundreds of times, if not thousands of times, over the last three decades.

The curious and seemingly unexplainable behaviour of continuing to slam a foot on the gas pedal with the same disastrous result is something that has puzzled me for many years.

Why do these drivers continue to slam on the gas when the vehicle does just the opposite of their intended action? People freeze on the gas pedal and are unable to alter their initial supposedly evasive action. They are literally in a state of shock! As an instructor, I have had to pop the shifter into neutral, or grab an ankle and pull the driver’s foot off the accelerator, while at the same time hammering my own extra brake pedal. It is not a pretty sight.

A physician with whom I have been corresponding has another explanation for the gas-brake mix-up, particularly as it pertains to senior drivers. He maintains leg numbness is the main reason for the mix-up. When a senior loses the feeling in the right leg, it is very likely that the right foot will actually hit both the gas and the brake at the same time. The gas pedal will initially overpower the brake in this situation. This same physician believes he can predict who will be guilty of a gas-brake mix-up in such circumstances.

Many seniors drive bigger domestic vehicles. The domestic carmakers usually mount the brake pedal higher than the gas pedal.

In order to properly engage the brake, a driver must lift a foot higher than to use the gas pedal. When a senior is unable to raise the right foot high enough, the gas is hit by mistake.

Imported cars, especially those from Asian countries, mount the brake and gas at about the same height. New drivers often hit both pedals at the same time, because it is difficult for them to feel the difference in elevation of the pedals. Again, the gas pedal will always win this initial “battle of the pedals” because of the nature of initial acceleration as opposed to the lateactivating full brake pressure.

The doctor believes there is a direct correlation between those older drivers who shuffle along while walking, instead of taking full strides, and those who will inevitably mistake the gas for the brake. I believe he is right. Maybe it is time to include a simulated braking exercise when renewing a driver’s licence.

The last time I hit the gas instead of the brake, I was driving a friend’s car while wearing winter boots, which proves it can happen to anybody.

Interior of 2012 Toyota Tacoma V6 Double Cab TRD with leather package.
Photograph by: Derek McNaughton, Postmedia News

Steve Wallace is the owner of Wallace Driving School on Vancouver Island and in the Central Interior of B.C. He is a certified teacher and the former vice-president of the Driving Schools Association of the Americas.