March 20, 2010 in City

I’ll know when to panic while driving my Prius

By The Spokesman-Review
 

As the owner of a Toyota Prius, I’ve heard all of the cracks.

•“We’re not getting in your car. Your floor mats might kill us.”

•“What’s the best way to slow down a Prius accelerating to 93 miles an hour? Get behind a semitruck going 73.”

•“Did you hear about the Prius with the accelerator pedal stuck all the way to the floor? It went 38.”

So, people have been asking me: Aren’t you terrified? Aren’t you concerned?

Yeah, I’m concerned all right. I’m concerned about how easy it is for people to get all hysterical.

Yes, I know there are legitimate problems with unintended acceleration in Toyotas. So maybe I should be panicking, or cowering in a corner, or purchasing something safer, like a motorized skateboard.

However, I’d like to make a few small points:

•I have never experienced unintended acceleration, except for that one time in my driveway when I momentarily forgot which was the “go” foot-thingy and which was the “stop” foot-thingy.

•My car is not part of the recall, which is only for specific models and model years.

•Even if it were, every car I have ever owned has been recalled for something. I can’t even remember every time I’ve received a notice about a steering column that could melt at 2,000 degrees, or a wheel that could fall off during Leap Years, or a radio that suddenly and shockingly starts playing Sean Hannity.

(By the way, I love recalls, in general, because they mean someone has to fix my car for free.)

• The odds of any car going completely insane – even one of the recalled Toyota models – are tiny. You’d think, from all of the panic, that millions of Toyotas would be zigzagging wildly down the interstates, as if Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock were on board. The truth is, the vast majority are poking along as usual.

So, why has this story been such a panic-inducer?

Probably because it involves Toyota, which has gotten all uppity since it hit No. 1. Probably, also, because fear can be contagious. Remember when we were all terrified to chomp on a hamburger because of E. coli, or to pop a Tylenol because of tampering?

Yet I’m convinced that there’s a new factor at work here: Mistrust of electronics. Cars today – especially Toyotas – are loaded with daunting electronic controls that, frankly, scare us.

My car has antilock brakes, traction control and some kind of stability control. I have no idea how they work, but I’m pretty sure they, essentially, wrest control of the car from me, even if just for a nanosecond. There are solid, safety-tested reasons for this: Drivers usually don’t do the right thing in a skid. So the electronics do it for them.

Still, I’m wary. I’m afraid the little robot inside my car will suddenly turn malicious and do something crazy, like cut the power to my wheels midintersection, or drive me to Tacoma.

So, yeah, maybe I can understand the panic. But I refuse to succumb to it. At least not until my Prius starts laughing maniacally and steering me, inexorably, toward Pierce County.

Reach Jim Kershner at jimk@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5493.

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