Mistaking the Gas for the Brake

Brake and Gas PedalsHow can a driver mistake the gas for the brake? I could not rationalize this explanation after reading another news story where a driver in a parking lot had driven into a building with significant force. Surely the driver must have known that this was going to happen and could have prevented it.

Canadian Study Results

A bit of research found Dr. Normand Teasdale at Laval University in Quebec. He has studied this phenomenon and explained to me that as we age, our ability to know exactly where our body is in space declines along with our ability to quickly and smoothly move our feet from the gas to the brake. Add peripheral nerve problems and the driver's ability to feel where their feet are also declines. The ultimate result is that the driver may genuinely believe that their right foot is pressing on the brake when it is really still on the gas.

Shouldn't a Driver be Aware?

Shouldn't a person know that this problem is going to occur? Dr. Teasdale likened it to a senior with a balance problem that caused falls. Until a fall occurred, and further falls indicated that there was something wrong, the person would not know that this was a problem rather than an accident. The first crash caused by mistaking the gas for the brake could be a genuine driver error.

Driving Examiner Experiences

I also consulted a driver examiner. He told me that he watched pedal operation carefully whenever he examined a driver, regardless of their age. If the driver had difficulty with proper foot positioning and pedal operation they would not be able to pass a driving exam.

Problem is Less Common in Europe

Dr. Teasdale suggested that this type of collision was not as common in Europe as it is here in North America. His hypothesis is that this may be because European vehicles tend to have manual transmissions and drivers are used to using both feet when they drive. This may help them to locate the pedals more accurately.

Who is Involved?

The stereotypical pedal error crash involves a senior driving through a parking stall and into a building. This may not be the case as a study in the US found a higher instance of these collisions among the 20 to 24 year old driver age group.

Reference Links

This is a timely topic - relevant (mostly) to 'old timers' such as myself! I drive a car with an automatic transmission, and for many years have trained my self (and my feet) as follows - left foot for brake pedal, right foot for the accelerator pedal. I am careful not to 'ride the brake' but when conditions indicate a need for extra quick action, my left foot is 'covering' that brake pedal - poised to pounce! - Ted

How does a person mistaken the gas for the brake? Your findings are disturbing, to say the least. To think an elderly driver would genuinely believe they are hitting the brake when infact they are hitting the gas is scary. I don't believe we should be looking at the number of incidences occured but the number of potential deaths that could have been caused. It's only been luck that pedestrians haven't been standing infront of them when they hit the wrong pedal. I watch drivers on the road daily and find that when I see indications of a poor driver, 85% of the time, it turns out to be an elderly person. Just because people drive slowly doesn't mean they are good drivers. The government/ICBC seems to be targeting the younger driver generation with many restrictions, but has anyone even considered the older generation. I guess the argument would be that they have been driving for years , but I believe your article reads true that the aging process for all of us, at some point over rides our skills and response time. Just in the region I live, there has been a startling number of accidents caused by elderly people. True story - One day, an elderly woman misjudged traffic, turned into an oncoming truck, and as a result, she died at the scene. This is a lose indeed, but has anyone reading this even considered the life long trauma she caused to the driver of the other vehicle? And now extend that to the families. My question is, should elderly people be behind the wheel of a 2000 lb weapon? My answer is yes…if they pass an annual driving exam. Yes, I said annual exam. Has ICBC and the government looked at establishing policy about having elderly citizens complete an annual driver exam? I'm sure this will cause an uproar of the elderly community, but I see it as keeping the roads safe. If we, as a society target young drivers, we have no choice but to target all drivers, otherwise we are discriminating against the youth of this country.

I have driven safely for years but have witnessed an accidents which astounded me . I was stopping for a "stale yellow " traffic light in Vancouver years ago when I noticed an individual go by me in the curb lane. As you might expect the light went red as he entered the intersection and Vancouver being busy as it is in summer rush hour the cross traffic on Knight street were off like racers when they got their green. Wham ! He hit the car entering the intersection on his right . The impact was on that driver's side door and the combined momentum spun the older man's car to the left . This was when I noticed his left rear wheel spinning on the pavement in full acceleration . He was in a newer model full-sized sedan with rear wheel drive . The older gent spun around almost facing me and hit two more vehicles entering the intersection on my left . He finally stopped in a daze . As he emerged shaken it was easy to see he was shocked but aware of his error . I stayed and offered my phone number to officers etc. He was an experienced driver with years of city driving . So the pedal mix-up isn't the answer here . What happened ? He took a chance and things unfolded in ways he couldn't imagine and obviously couldn't deal with . He panicked and then his brain / body connection failed momentarily I am sure he, as many others,had a problem called "processing" . This can happen with age, inexperience , intoxication, or even brain injury such as ischemic stroke etc.. What happens with these individuals on occasion is the inability to process what they see into the appropriate action needed . He saw the car entering the intersection on his right , knew he had to brake hard and fast but with a "processing error" mistakenly thought his foot had transferred onto the brake pedal ........oops not that time ! It is more likely to occur when people are confronted with situations they have never experienced before also . I once came upon an accident where a man drove right into a spilled load of lumber on the Trans-Canada freeway . He had not been able to mentally compute the scene and instead of braking began trying to figure out what was on the roadway and in doing so lost his safe stopping distance. In these two cases , speed , sunlight , age, eyesight , reaction time and "processing" all likely came into play . Aging brains can seem like mild intoxication in some people . I taught two sons to drive and had them imagine scenarios where they might be put into odd driving conflicts such as an animal on a bridge with no curb or a drunk stepping off a sidewalk in the middle of a dark side street etc. This way they would ponder possibilities and hopefully have the information ready for some future situation . Stored data is always faster than trying to learn new data in fractions of seconds !

Why not school seniors to use their left foot on the brake? I am a 64 year old semi-retired male that farmed and was the owner-operator of a tractor-semitrailer in North-western Alberta (Peace River Country). At the age of 37 I had back surgery to remove parts of 2 herniated disks. Because the surgery was bungled, I emerged with my right side from the buttocks down partially numb, with loss of strength. I, with determination and exercise, regained most of my function except that some numbness and weakness remained below my right knee, and the right calf atrophied somewhat. As a result, I walk with a decided limp and I run like Terry Fox. I resumed my occupations but had to adapt to compensate for my deficiencies. As you know, heavy trucks have air actuated brakes and they are somewhat different than hydraulic brakes. When pulling semi or B train, it is very critical to have a "feel" of the brake so that one does not lock up some of the trailing wheels when braking. So, on long, steep hills, I started using my left foot on the brake and this worked well. This required more attention and preplanning on my part before encountering a bad hill especially on the bush roads (I moved drilling rig equipment in the oil patch or hauled logs). When I have my periodic class one medical, the examining doctors are aware of my condition and are satisfied that I can still control a big rig satisfactorily. Now, I'm in the habit of driving my Chevy pickup with automatic transmission with my left foot actuating the brake. I think this is much safer than having one foot running both controls. I am sure that I avoided two accidents in Mexico using this practice. In many situations, I find myself positioning my left foot with the heel on the floorboards and the front part of the foot hovering over the brake pedal. Hence my reaction time is dramatically reduced in case an emergency stop is required. When I drive my wife's Honda Accord with a manual transmission, I have to go back to the regular way of driving, of course. I think that, in this day and age, with most of the passenger vehicles equipped with automatic transmissions and many people not even able to drive a standard, that driver education instructors should be teaching people to use their left foot on the brake. I think this could reduce or eliminate the type accident you are talking about.

I notice that no mention was made of 2-footed driving. Many people seem to believe that this is safer driving because the left foot is always poised over the brake pedal. Put any of these people in a stressed situation and I wonder how many of them will ram their right foot to the floor. I witnessed a situation in which an older person was taking delivery of a new vehicle which was parked in the car dealer's workshop. The new owner sat in the driver's seat while the salesman pointed out some of the features with the engine running to aid the demonstration. As the salesman stepped back and closed the car door, the driver put the car in gear with his left foot touching the brake pedal. The car started to roll towards the overhead door which was not yet open and instead of pressing down harder with his left foot, the driver slammed his right foot to the floor and rammed the closed overhead door so hard that he ripped it out of its frame. Luckily no one was injured but there was considerable damage to both vehicle and building. I always remember this incident when I read or hear about people driving into buildings when trying to get out of parking stalls or ramming objects at full throttle.

I queried ICBC on the subject of 2 footed driving. They drew my attention to RoadSense for Drivers which states:

Brake: The brake pedal is located to the left of the accelerator and is used to slow down and stop the vehicle. Always use your right foot to operate the brake. You need to learn to apply the right amount of pressure on the brake so that you can stop the vehicle smoothly and precisely.....

Clutch: In a vehicle with standard transmission, pressing the clutch pedal disconnects the engine from the transmission so you can shift gears. You use your left foot to press the pedal when changing gears. Do not keep the clutch pedal pressed .....

Clearly, if a driver chooses to use their left foot on the brake this would be contrary to the publication and I would expect a sanction for doing so on a driver's exam. In addition, the following link leads to a driving tip from a senior driving instructor. He feels that left footed braking has its place, but that is usually on the race track rather than our highways.


How can a driver mistake the gas for the brake?
Well it's easy if the gas pedel is placed where the driver learned when he was young that the brake was in that location!
The brake used to be on the right side of the steering column and the clutch on the left and the gas pedal way over to the right by the small drive shaft hump. Now the gready manufactures in their bid to make more money have shoved the engine right back into the passenger compartment and hence the big hump in the middle and the pedals are slowly moved to the left. The gas pedal is now where the brake used to be in the early forties!! When an older person gets in a panic situation, and I concede that may happen more with failing vision and reflexes etc., then he steps on where he learnt the brake was in the old days and woop te do steps on a gas pedal that is too far to the left and where he thinks the brake is. If the gas pedal is where the brake should be people will step on it when they want to stop.
I blame the manufactures for these accidents and not the old folk.
This happened to me when I was 23 years old and I went into denile until I figured out that I hit the brake and the gas at the same time because the dam peadles on my new viecle were moved to the left from what I was used to! And I was 23 years old. And dam Mad at the manufactures. Why isn't this exposed for what it really is. Don't move the controls from year to year!! Don't blame the old folk for these accidents!

... is that when a driver inadvertently puts their foot on the gas pedal instead of the brake, and it doesn't produce the expected/intended reaction, they press harder.

Stupid mistake, in hindsight; but understandable when you see it happen.

As far as which foot you should use for braking, I've been ambidextrous with this for decades, having taught myself left foot braking from thousands of hours of driving taxis on graveyard shift back in the 70s; time was often of the essence, but back then many intersections remained uncontrolled.

To this day, in automatic vehicles, I'll switch between driving two-footed or right-footed depending on the location of the pedals, and how easily the brake pedal can be operated by the left foot.  And never ever at all been confused.

Incidentally, my Class 5, Class 3, and Class 1 Road Tests were - obviously, given the era/vehicle in use - on 'standard' transmission vehicles.  So I do know what I'm talking about, eh?

Much has changed in 14 years with automatic braking etc. I believe in the future we will see a decrease in these type of accidents.

It was mentioned Europe has less of a problem due to the use of standard transmissions. Being an old codger I still feel it should be mandatory for new drivers to start on a manual. I have always felt that people that drive manuals are more connected with the vehicle. With automatics it is point and go. Unfortunately far too many driving instructors are of the same mindset. Point the vehicle in the direction you want to go, select D and push the go pedal. Probably 90% of driving instructors could not drive a manual!

Not mentioned is that before power brakes, automatic transmissions and power steering were standard equipment. The brake pedal on vehicles without power brakes was at the same level as the clutch. Simply slipping your foot from the gas to the brake was not an option. You had to raise your foot. Maybe if one still had to raise your foot to hit the brake this would be reduced.

Who knows? Maybe in the interest of safety the powers that be should put all people over 70 into new vehicles with all the bells and whistles:) I'll take an ID4 all wheel drive:)