The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said on Thursday that it wants automakers to install a brake override system aimed at stopping a car from accelerating if the driver is pressing on the brake.
The step -- long awaited by industry watchers -- is a response to Toyota's sudden acceleration recalls from late 2009 and 2010.
Floor mats that kept gas pedals depressed even when drivers stepped on the brakes have been seen as one of the primary causes of those recalls. A brake override system would cut the gas flow to the engine if drivers stepped on both the gas and the brake at the same time.
"By updating our safety standards, we're helping give drivers peace of mind that their brakes will work even if the gas pedal is stuck down while the driver is starting to brake," stated U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a press release.
The proposed rule has sparked a debate inside the auto world between those who think a brake override is a necessary safety technology and those who think drivers don't need it. It's a classic industry discussion: Do we need technology to make drivers safer? Or would enhanced driver education make the roads safer?
Some manufacturers, like Mercedes, Chrysler, Nissan, GM and Mazda, already include brake override systems on their vehicles. Toyota now offers a brake override system as standard equipment on all models.
The highway safety agency said its new rule will apply to cars, trucks and buses.
The highway safety agency believes the brake override system will help drivers avoid crashes if their cars accelerate out of control.
"This proposal is one way the agency is helping keep drivers safe and continuing to work to reduce the risk of injury from stick pedals or pedal entrapment issues," said David Strickland, the agency's administrator.
A driver who takes a foot off the brake while the car is accelerating and then suddenly puts it back on the brake can lose total braking power, making it impossible to stop: That's because most cars are equipped with vacuum-assisted power brakes and pumping those brakes can them to fail. Brake override systems, however, could help cars consistently maintain their braking power. Consumer Reports, which has come out in favor of brake override systems, has prepared a video illustrating how difficult it can be to stop a car that is accelerating.
Some consumer websites aren't fans, however. Jeremy Anwyl, vice chairman of consumer website Edmunds.com, said such an override system could provide "a false sense of security for drivers, especially in cases where a driver accidentally applies the wrong pedal, and an override will do nothing to solve the problem."
But one instructor said he was worried that laws like this would put more emphasis on technological solutions and less on drivers' skills.
"It doesn't make for a better driver; it makes for a safer car," said Greg Nikolas, a lead instructor at the off-roading Land Rover Experience Driving School at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C. "It doesn't address the root of the problem, which is that people aren't being taught how to drive. They're being taught the rules of the road but not the physical dynamics of how to drive."
Students who go through the Land Rover Experience Driving School learn, among other things, left-foot braking, which relies on a driver pressing on the gas and the brake at the same time. That helps balance the weight of the vehicle on all four tires, resulting in better traction in slippery or icy conditions.
Sammy Hagar sang about the technique in the opening lyrics of his 1980s song "I Can't Drive 55." (His style of driving in the video -- with erratic moves and aggressively trying to pass cars -- might not be the kind the safety institute would want to promote. though.)
Very few drivers use left-foot braking techniques, so the number of people affected by a potential brake override system would be small, Nikolas said. It could make cars safer for people who aren't aware there are things they can do when their car is accelerating out of control (like putting the car in neutral to stop the engine from pushing the car forward).
"The new safety technology definitely is making for safer cars and reducing the number of fatalities on the road," Nikolas said. "But it's definitely not making for better drivers. They're pushing cars harder than they should."
Enthusiast website Jalopnik wrote on Friday that it mostly favors the rule, provided that automakers provide drivers the ability to turn it off.
"Feel free to make us jump through hoops and on-screen menus and waivers and whatever," wrote Jalopnik's Jason Torchinsky. "Because the only people who need to turn it off are people looking to really race their cars, and they know what they are getting into."