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Imagine you are having lunch with a friend and suddenly forced to dive out of the way of a car crashing through the glass store front.

On Sunday, an elderly woman apparently mistook the gas pedal for the brake, jumped the curb and crashed into a Roseville, MI Panera Bread. About 15 – 20 people were inside the restaurant at the time. Two people suffered minor leg injuries from flying shards of glass. The bakery and café are closed until Monday while the glass is replaced. A building inspector determined there was no major structural damage to the restaurant. The crash is still under investigation.

Stories like this gained notoriety in 2003 when an 86-year-old male driver mistakenly stepped on the gas pedal of his car instead of the brake then panicked, plowing into an open-air market in Santa Monica, Calif. Ten people were killed and 63 injured.

Nearly 16,000 preventable crashes occur every year due to pedal error – when a driver mistakes the gas pedal for the brake causing sudden vehicle acceleration, according the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). On a daily basis, this means approximately 44 pedal error-related accidents occur on U.S. roadways.

A study was conducted by TransAnalytics LLC of Quakertown, Pa., and the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina under contract for NHTSA. Researchers looked at prior studies, case studies of specific accidents and crash reports in North Carolina – the only state to track pedal misapplication. They found that most pedal error crashes occurred at low speeds, such as while parking or when braking is required such as at intersections or in rush hour traffic. Additionally, these errors often occur when the drivers’ foot slips off the brake and onto the accelerator or when the driver inadvertently steps on both pedals simultaneously. Researchers also found that most crashes involved drivers under 20 years of age and over 65, with older females accounting for more than four times as many pedal related crashes than other age groups.

They believe there are many reasons for this. One most likely factor is because the part of the brain that supports mental processes has not fully developed in teens, while the same processes start to deteriorate with age. Older drivers also often face some physical and mental deterioration. They may lose feeling in their legs or feet caused by physical deterioration, diabetes or other health issues. Some may be taking medications that cloud their judgment. Others may have many years of bad driving habits, such as driving with one foot on the gas and the other on the brake. Even thick orthopedic shoes can cause an elderly driver to overstep the correct pedal. The study also showed that elderly women were at a greater risk, possibly because they tend to spend more time driving in parking lots where these crashes occur. Additionally, due to their smaller stature, women do not fit as well into driver’s seats.

For years, some have argued that car designs are dangerously flawed – two pedals, inches apart. Imported vehicles usually mount the brake and gas at about the same height. The domestic automakers usually mount the brake pedal, but not the gas. In order to properly engage the brake, a driver must lift a foot higher than to use the gas pedal. Many seniors drive bigger domestic vehicles so when they are unable to raise the right foot high enough, the gas is often pressed by mistake.

The NHTSA offers these tips to prevent pedal error accidents:

  • Be familiar with your vehicle. Take time to adjust the seat, mirrors, and steering wheel. Make sure you are familiar with the location and feel of the pedals when driving an unfamiliar vehicle. Also, be familiar with safety equipment such as the brakes, horn, wipers and hazard lights.
  • Aim for the center of the brake pedal every time.
  • Avoid distraction and stay focused on driving until the vehicle is parked and the engine is off.
  • Exercise caution and proceed slowly when entering and exiting parking spaces.
  • Wear proper footwear. Wear flat-soled, lightweight footwear when behind the wheel. Avoid flip-flops, high heels, or heavy boots which may contribute to a pedal error accident.

Even so, given the statistics and the fact that by 2020, one in every five drivers in the U.S. will be 65 or older, some believe it is time to take action; that there should be tighter regulations on elderly drivers. What do you think? Should our senior be required to obtain an annual doctors’ certification proving they are fit to drive? Should they be required to take an annual written and vision test? Should there be a simulated braking exercise when renewing a driver’s license?

You can help simply by frequently assess the driving ability of your senior loved ones. As hard as it may be, you may need to step in and put on the brakes to their driving – for their safety, as well as other motorists and pedestrians.

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.

One Comment

  1. Gravatar for lilia portilla

    Thank you for the information. I noticed that High heels make driving unconfortable so I always carry flat shoes in my trunk and avoid using flip flops to drive.

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