Stuck in neutral, or not.

Alan and I are having one of our occasional squabbles (“The Atlantic is a better ocean! The Pacific is a better ocean!”) over the lede on this story:

DETROIT — The 911 call came at 6:35 p.m. on Aug. 28 from a car that was speeding out of control on Highway 125 near San Diego.

The caller, a male voice, was panic-stricken: “We’re in a Lexus … we’re going north on 125 and our accelerator is stuck … we’re in trouble … there’s no brakes … we’re approaching the intersection … hold on … hold on and pray … pray …”

The call ended with the sound of a crash.

The story is about Toyota’s sudden-acceleration problem, of course. The driver is described as an “off-duty California Highway Patrol officer.” We both agree that when one is in a car with an apparently stuck accelerator, the first thing to do is shift into neutral. However, I maintain that anyone in a highway patrol would have advanced training in high-speed driving and would know this in his bones, and if he didn’t do so, there must have been a reason — perhaps the car couldn’t be shifted into neutral at speed, I dunno. He maintains I am “overthinking” it, and the guy just panicked and forgot.

And then I realized that this is just about the five-year anniversary of our move to Detroit, and we must be natives for sure now, because we are arguing about cars.

Everyone in that Lexus died, by the way. This just underlines why I am bound and determined that Kate learn to drive on a stick shift, and I don’t care if she burns out a clutch doing so; driving a manual requires you to pay more attention to the task at hand. And there’s another reminder: When we moved here, Kate was in second grade. This time next year, she will be months away from getting her learner’s license. Of course Michigan teens can start driving under supervision at 14 years, eight months. Utter insanity, but that’s how an automotive state rolls. I’m sure kids in Kentucky and Virginia were expected to start smoking at 12, once upon a time, to help the state’s economy.

First of February, today. This is always around the time I notice the light is changing, not so much the time the sun shines but the angle — ask a scientist why, I prefer the poets. The same thing happens the first week in August, when, on lower-humidity days (it never quite gets “low” here), the sun seems distinctly autumnal. As any groundhog will tell you, there’s a lot more winter ahead of us, but today, you can see the high-water mark. And it’s dry.

Both bits of bloggage are old, but not everyone has time to read the internet every day. So here goes:

A Texas politician declines to seek newspaper endorsement, and the newspaper calls this a “major rebuke.” Ha. Endorsements are one of those holdovers from not just an earlier time, but a way-way earlier time, and flat-out refuse to die. The best guesstimates I’ve seen is that in a hotly contentious presidential election year, all the newspaper endorsements in the country might have an influence over 10,000 votes, tops, and that’s being generous. Locally, who knows, but the fact that candidates work so hard to get them, and make such a fuss when they do or don’t, always struck me as sort of pathetic.

Endorsements are based on editorial-board interviews with candidates, followed by a discussion. The publisher usually wins, and the publisher is usually either a pro-business conservative and sometimes a generic center-left liberal. A windy, boring editorial will be published, using the royal “we.” (I sometimes wonder if that royal we isn’t why editorials are so boring; a previous ed-page editor of in Fort Wayne referred to the board as “the page” or “this page,” and solicited columns from “friends of the page,” which is how they were designated: Bob Butthead, Friend of the Page. I once asked why they didn’t ask others to be Enemies of the Page, a far cooler column head if you ask me, but as usually happens when you’re dealing with people who consider themselves not an I but a We, it didn’t go over well.

Anyway, the whole editorial-page structure — Hear Us, Voice of This August Institution — was blown out of the water by the internet, but many of them haven’t gotten the news yet. And so: “Major rebuke.” Now there’s a column I’d read: By Major Rebuke, Enemy of the Page.

And speaking of media institutions that refuse to change, even while the foundations are washed out from under them, Charlie Brooker on how to report news, TV-style. A YouTube link, but funny and worth your time. Wasn’t I just talking about this the other day? If only I’d taken the time to make the video.

Manic Monday is already underway, a day with a perpetually stuck accelerator. Ciao for me, and off to rounds ‘n’ Russian.

Posted at 9:56 am in Current events, Detroit life, Media |

65 responses to “Stuck in neutral, or not.”

  1. Bill B... said on February 1, 2010 at 10:26 am

    How about get in the right lane and turn the ignition off? Even with power steering off you could still get to the the shoulder……Jeez, what was that trooper thinking?

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  2. Bill B... said on February 1, 2010 at 10:28 am

    And what’s that about having no brakes? Is that a more serious separate issue?…

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  3. Mindy said on February 1, 2010 at 10:36 am

    Agreed in regards to manual transmissions producing better drivers. I’ve been on automatic for nearly fifteen years in my own car, but when I’m in the husband’s car with a stick shift I’m much more focused. Plus, it’s more fun as a rule. The Honda C-Rex we used to have was a blast to drive and a great attitude adjustment on a bad day. Maybe my next car will have a stick. I’ve got a 2001 Accord that I bought new. Dear brother-in-law has the identical car except with the manual transmission – 180,000 miles young and he still enjoys driving it. Me, I usually crank up the jams and pay attention to the car in front.

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  4. Bob (not Greene) said on February 1, 2010 at 10:47 am

    When my wife and I were first married, we had a Dodge Colt (I know what you’re thinking, “these people are way too cool”) with a manual transmission. It was kind of fun until the clutch gave out on I-90 outside of Rockford at 11 p.m. on the Fourth of July. We were stuck there until some dudes in a muscle car with Iowa plates were kind enough to push us along the shoulder to the nearest exit ramp and nearby gas station. Late night, that night. My wife had to call her boss (I was still a grad student, and it was summer, after all) at 2 a.m. and let him know that she wouldn’t be in that morning as planned. We’ve had an automatic transmission ever since, though the stuck accelerator syndrome does give one pause with two boys under 20 driving.

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  5. Julie Robinson said on February 1, 2010 at 10:56 am

    We drive a Camry and my sis drives a Corolla, neither one from the recall years, but we’re watching carefully.

    In my natal state of Iowa, you only have to be 14 to get a learner’s permit. I think this is a holdover from its rural farm days but applies to city kids too. Neither one of our kids were ready at that age, believe me!

    I’m glad to be back home after a busy week at my mom’s for her second cataract surgery. Money quote of the week from Mom, who is now seeing colors better as a side effect of the surgery: “This purse is green?”

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  6. Jeff Borden said on February 1, 2010 at 10:56 am

    Count me as a fan of manual transmissions, though our last five-speed Honda went away in 1994, when all we could find in our price range was a used Mitsubishi Galant with auto. Our current vehicle, purchased new in 1999, did not have the option of a manual.

    I miss the flexibility of a gear box every winter, particularly the ability to put the car in a higher gear and torque out of a slick or snowy spot. Yet when driving from our house to the Loop, say, I would probably be shifting gears, oh, a few thousand times.

    I agree everyone should learn to drive manual. At the very least, it will serve you well when you travel. Only the high-end rental cars in Europe offer automatics.

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  7. MarkH said on February 1, 2010 at 10:56 am

    Ditto on the manual override decision in cars. My theory being, a stick shift negates the need for cupholders because you’re too busy doing more important things with your right hand. On the other hand, going back to my auto retailing days, clutches were normal wear items, therefore not part of the power train warranties, which have only got better, btw. Clutches go off at about 12,000 miles, making an autmatic a more practical choice. But then there’s always the unexpected (acceleration problem).

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  8. LAMary said on February 1, 2010 at 11:03 am

    Fourteen years eight months? That’s nuts. In CA you can get a learner permit at fifteen and a half, but neither of my kids did. I set some GPA levels which had to be maintained for a reasonable period and a few other responsibility indicators before I was ready to hand over my one and only vehicle. The older son didn’t get his license until he was eighteen. The younger will be sixteen in ten days and we haven’t visited the DMV yet. I am the mom from hell.

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  9. Crabby said on February 1, 2010 at 11:12 am

    The trooper may not have known how to shut down the engine,he was driving a rental car that was equipped with a start/stop switch which has to be held down for 3+ seconds when the car is moving to shut down the engine.

    See – Is the power start-stop button the most dangerous new feature in cars?

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  10. Jeff Borden said on February 1, 2010 at 11:13 am


    Clutch wear depends on driving conditions, doesn’t it? My 1980 Accord went almost 90,000 miles before needing a new clutch, but those miles were put on while living in Columbus, Ohio, and Charlotte, N.C. I imagine they would wear out much more quickly in the more intense urban driving conditions of Chicago.

    Thanks, also, for your remark on cupholders. Our vehicle is coming up on 11 years old, but we still avoid eating or drinking in the cabin. Of course, we’re childless old fogeys, so that prohibition is easy to enforce. I’m sure we’d love cupholders if we had kids.

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  11. Sue said on February 1, 2010 at 11:26 am

    I’ve been reading this blog for too long. I know based on past entries (at least two that I can remember) that the manual transmission discussion will take up a good portion of the comments, and will be divided into 1) stories on how we learned/taught stick; 2) how few women prefer manual and how ODD that is; 3) best systems, then and now and 4) how stick shifts are going the way of the horse-drawn carriage.

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  12. Joe Kobiela said on February 1, 2010 at 11:33 am

    Charlie Brooker is great. If you pop the car into neutral the engine hits a rev limiter and won’t blow up, I also wonder about the valditity of that clip,could be a urbane legand. I think Toyota knew about the problem but like with the exploding Pinto thought it was cheaper to just pay the lawsuits than make a change.
    Funny how times change, I think Ford has a higher quality rating now than Toyota.
    Pilot Joe

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  13. Jeff Borden said on February 1, 2010 at 11:40 am

    According to Consumer Reports, Joe, you are correct. They have at least five Ford models rated as equal or superior to similar Toyota models for quality. Alan Mulally originally struck me as an odd choice for Ford, but he has done a great job so far and without any government investment.

    Sue, you are probably partially correct. The old “push in the clutch, shift, let off the clutch slowly” form of manual may vanish in America, but people clearly like to think of themselves as drivers. Growing numbers of vehicles in many different price points come with paddle shifters on the steering column, allowing drivers to pretend they are Michael Schumacher or Dale Jr. Our old car (1999)has a clutchless manual-style feature, which will hold the car in gear to the point of redlining if you so desire.

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  14. moe99 said on February 1, 2010 at 11:50 am

    I tried to get a manual Subaru Outback in 2000 when I purchased my current car. The dealer had nothing in stock and after 25 years of driving manuals, I thought that I’d try an automatic. We have lots of hills in Seattle, and an automatic makes that part easier. But if I had a choice, I’d probably go back to a manual.

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  15. MarkH said on February 1, 2010 at 11:52 am

    Absolutely correct, Jeff; driving conditions vary, therefore so does expected clutch life. But the other factor is DRIVER conditions, which is why manufacturers never take responsibility for the clutch performance beyond certain limits, i.e., 12 months/12,000 miles. As fellow old fogies, we take care of our machinery and, especially these days, it’s not unusual to get full service out of a clutch for 100,000 or more. But there are always the car beaters, usually younger, that the carmakers put into the equation. I’m OK with cupholders in the back seats, btw.

    EDIT: Out of curiosity, I called one of my buddies at the local GM/Subaru dealer where I used to work, and he just educated me on how out of touch I’ve been in the last 15 years. Clutches now ARE included in all powertrain warranties, 4 years/60,000 miles for Subies, and 5/50,000 for GM. Bumper-to-bumper remains 3 years/36,000 miles on most cars. Not bad. I haven’t bought a new car in years, though. Just the nicest lowest-priced late model used I can find.

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  16. Jeff Borden said on February 1, 2010 at 12:00 pm


    Didn’t the dealerships used to alter their warranty policies based on models? I seem to recall the warranty on a Ford LTD four-door sedan was longer than the warranty on a Ford Mustang with a big V-8 and a stick shift for obvious reasons. The dealers assumed the Mustang driver would be younger and would drive the car hard and fast. Am I incorrect in my memory? I’m referring to the old days of the `60s and `70s.

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  17. Dorothy said on February 1, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    Another bonus to driving a manual would be your hands are either on the steering wheel or the shifter, hence rendering you unable (presumably) to talk or text on a cell phone.

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  18. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 1, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    Sue, you’re correct on the comment sequence, with this wild card: if Pat Robertson is quoted as saying Toyota’s problems are due to ancestor worship by top management who are “defiantly” Shinto in religious practice, then all bets are off.

    Gosh, I sure hope he doesn’t read this blog. It would be a very sad feeling to know one had put the idea in his head.

    Question to OU folk who are thick on the ground and up in the canopy ’round here: “The school of journalism has had a history of bullying,” according to

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  19. Julie Robinson said on February 1, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    Sticks are fun to drive but too hard on my gimpy left knee. A few years ago I got to drive one briefly and was reassured that I remembered how.

    And now Sue, you’re four for four.

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  20. beb said on February 1, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    This isn’t the first stuck accelerator problem with cars. The first time was, oh, geeze, maybe 20 years ago. At that time it was poo-pooed by all serious reporters. The official explanation was that pepople were mistaking the acellerator for the brake without realizing it. Eventually the problem went away and that was the end of it. I never could credence the idea that people coudn’t tell the brake from the accelerator. Since the problem never officially existed there never was an offcialy explaination. But I suspect Toyota’s problems today are the same as GM’s accelerator problems back then.

    I had a car that sometimes tried to lunge. It would accour about a minute after turing the engine one. What I think was happening was that the choke was turned off at the point, the engine started to die and the throttle automatically opened causing the engine to race, but the transmission hadn’t slipped into neutral when I came to a stop so when the engine suddenly revived the car would buck forward. I doubt that this is the source of Toyota’s problem but I throw it out there as a story to tell.

    Michigan’s beginner’s driver’s license is one of those stepped things were you can get a permit at 14y 8m but you can’t drive by yourself for a half year or better, and again even at the second stage have strict limits on what you can do. Whereas when I was a yout’ a driver’s license at 16 as a license to go to hell.

    This morning I noticed dawn’s rosy blush in the eastern sky so in some respects the worst of winter is over. But in the fall August allways seemed like the worst of summer while September was the suddenly change to Fall. But YMMV.

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  21. kayak woman said on February 1, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    I have to disagree that the 14 year, 8 month driver’s ed eligibility rules we have in Michigan are all that bad. I understand that it’s a little scary thinking about your 14-year-old behind the wheel. But if you start them driving early, they have that much more time to drive with a *parent* in the car. Both of my daughters took driver’s ed as soon as they were eligible and I think it was well worth it. By the time they got their licenses, they had had a lot of practice.

    Of course, I have to add that my husband actually taught my kids (and most of their cousins) how to drive our old manual transmission Wrangler when they were as young as eight on an old abandoned air base in the UP.

    Editing again: I also have to add that they drove that jeep for years until it practically disintegrated and never burned out the clutch.

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  22. alex said on February 1, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    Still a Toyota fan no matter what. I’ve never been struck by lightning nor won the lottery either, so not terribly concerned.

    Krugman in the Times today is good reading, lest anyone fall for official Washington’s version of what’s wrong with Wall Street:

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  23. jcburns said on February 1, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    In 1995, we went to some trouble to get a Ford Explorer with manual transmission (and 4WD). Did NOT regret that choice. On the other hand (or in the driveway), we have a Prius, which has basically no gears to shift (the transmission is continually variable) and the dreaded push button. So far, so good…when we tell it to go into neutral (which is a flick of the wrist) it does, and the push button, remarkably, works like a button. And Jeff, thanks for the OU Post link. Of course, most of us went there long enough ago that there are no surviving faculty from that era. I’m reading the story now and getting that “oh, crap” feeling. [edit] And damn, I wish the article was written better. Darn j-school kids, get off my lawn.

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  24. brian stouder said on February 1, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    Geezer alert: I remember when my dad complained because you couldn’t buy a car with a manual choke anymore! I also vividly remember when he put a brand new 1972 Impala in the driveway: 4-door, vinyl roof (do they do that anymore?), a/c, automatic – and the sticker price was $4800. He lamented that “$5000 and the dashboard is PLASTIC!”

    But there is a point here. Old mechanical linkages and systems have been replaced by circuit boards and software. One of Toyota’s problems – which is being eclipsed by the accelerator fiasco, is that some of their cars also lose all braking.

    The story was that you would be braking and hit a bump hard enough, and voila – their faulty anti-lock braking system would simply disable the brakes altogether.

    Similarly, the accelerator gremlin seems to live in several places; simple things like floor mats contribute ot some case, and the friction return on the pedal itself (although the pedal maker denies that this is THE problem); and the electronic interface between the pedal and the engine’s throttle.

    But indeed, when these things begin to happen, a person might think “Oh, what a feeling!”

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  25. beb said on February 1, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    I grew up just outside South Bend, Ind., in what then was a farming country. When I took the school’s driver’s ed class the first question the teacher had was “Who’s driven a tractor?” I raised my hand. So I was the first in the driver’s seat. I’d been driving a tractor since I was 11 or 12 so in large part driving a car, working a clutch, etc was nothing new. I remember during the course we had had snow over night. So the class piled into the car, drove over to a shopping mall and practiced skidding on snow on that big, open and unplowed parking lot. These days parking lots are plowed almost before the snow stops falling. It’s a lot harder to get that kind of experience today, before you need it.

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  26. LAMary said on February 1, 2010 at 1:11 pm

    I had a 1972 Toyota and the accelerator got stuck. I put it in neutral, rolled to the side of the road and turned off the engine. What was wrong was obvious. A hose had fallen out of the clamp that held it in place around the air filter and onto where the accelerator cable is connected to a little lever. It stuck it open. Bad design, I’d say. If a nineteen year old girl with no clue how a car works can tell something is poorly thought out, it sucks.

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  27. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 1, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    The problem with the Toyota deal is that I’m not hearing anyone mention, as Brian is, the “Murder on the Orient Express” option.

    Beb, I’m from Valparaiso — got the same question on 1st day of driver’s ed. Learned little about driving, much about World War II from the “retired” coach who sat shotgun as we taught ourselves about navigating salt-pitted roads drifted across with lake-effect partly-cloudy, eight to eighteen inches worth.

    We’d skid and “learn by doing” counter steer, the backseat victims clutching the door armrests while Coach told us how much deeper the snow was at Bastogne (which was no doubt the case). Off onto Rt. 30 we’d practice passing while he reflected on the injustices faced by the “colored” truckdrivers of the Red Ball Express, and how they’d get even if you drove your jeep past them on the right on a non-existent shoulder, the relief driver dumping boots full of urine on unwary illegal passers.

    It was an education . . .

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  28. crinoidgirl said on February 1, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    And I believe LAMary’s tactic would have worked, even on cars with that damn power on/off button. The electronics don’t get in the way of shifting to neutral, at least not right now. They may in the future, when the auto manufacturers think that’s good for us.

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  29. MichaelG said on February 1, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    I simply cannot imagine crashing my car the way the off duty CHP guy did. I don’t understand how that crash happened. Stand on the brakes, turn off the ignition, pop it into neutral, pull the accelerator back with your toe. The CHP does train its people in high performance driving skills. They have a track and a skid pad here in West Sacramento at the CHP Academy. You can see it here off Reed Ave in the western part of West Sacramento. It’s just west of I-80.

    I always drove a stick until I bought my present car. My ex refuses to drive an auto. She has a 2006 PT Cruiser. I ended up with an automatic on my car because stick shift cars are getting harder to find, especially beyond the entry level. I would prefer one. Neither my ex nor myself have ever replaced a clutch. I put 125,000 miles on an ’81 Corolla in San Francisco and the clutch was fine when I sold the car. I got rid of it because it didn’t have A/C which isn’t necessary in SF but is in Sacto where I was moving. If you drive properly a clutch will last forever. Simply don’t slip it. I made sure my daughter learned to drive on a stick shift. Today she and hubby have two cars, one auto and one stick.

    I’ve been sort of fascinated with the new Nissan Cube ever since the rental people gave me one for a few days when I was in Hollywood last fall. It’s a hoot.

    When was the last time anyone here changed a tire? I had a flat this AM when I left to go to work. I have a compressor and I tried to blow it up but no go. So I put on the little space saver thingy and went off to the tire store to spend $250 on a pair of skins for the front. The rears have lots of tread still. They don’t do anything but keep the back bumper from dragging on the ground anyway. Way to start the week. I can’t remember the last time I changed a tire. It hasn’t gotten any more fun.

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  30. Jeff Borden said on February 1, 2010 at 2:19 pm


    The worst part about changing a tire is the lousy equipment the manufacturers give you, which usually means you can’t get much leverage on the lugs. If the car has been serviced and those lugs installed with a power wrench, you really need that leverage.

    I keep an old-fashioned, X-shaped tire tool in the trunk. Different ends fit different-sized lugs, but the critical thing is you can put two hands on the sucker and really get some power to those lugs.

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  31. MarkH said on February 1, 2010 at 2:19 pm

    Jeff B., you’re on the right track re: the warranty difference and it does go back to the ’60s and ’70s, pre-’74 at least. Dealers are forbidden to deny or cancel a warranty, except they can disalow a claim when there is clear evidence of abuse and they can document with photos and a technician’s statement. But, in the years mentioned, all the big three had special performance options that could be orderd to, basically, make certain models street race cars. These options were never publicised, were mostly for competition, etc., and only certain dealers had a list of such options and could order. But, if you got an order through for, say an L88 Corvette, 427/4-speed Fairlane, certain MOPAR 426 setups, the manufacturer alway sent paperwork specifically stating, “no warranty coverage”, or “warranty exempt”. They knew what was going to happen with the cars. I bet if you googled, you could find a comprehensive list of such vehicles; it’s great history.

    FYI, I believe Columbus area dealer Bob McDorman was such a dealer and he used these privileges to order special stuff just for himself. I didn’t know this until recently, but he had an EXTENSIVE car collection that has gone on the block and been sold. A lot of neat collector cars.

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  32. Christy S. said on February 1, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    Bill B. and others:

    Mark Saylor, the off-duty CHP officer who was killed in this crash (along with his wife, daughter and BIL), was unable to shift into neutral. He “might” have been able to stop the car with the 3-second ignition control, but even that wasn’t certain according to the report filed after the investigation. This car was seriously effed up.

    I live in San Diego. This story started out with assumptions about Saylor committing suicide, affairs and all kinds of other junk. So now that his name had been cleared and Toyota has admitted to the accelerator issues, please don’t continue to talk poorly about this man’s abilities or intentions. He was a 20-year CHP officer with significant training in vehicles so I’m sure he tried everything he could in those harrowing few seconds.

    Just like Ford Pinto, Firestone Radial 500s and the like — people have to die before these shitty companies will admit their mistakes. I love my Camry but I hope the class action suit pulls serious dollars from Toyota’s pockets. If only Patty Hewes were real…

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  33. Joe Kobiela said on February 1, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    If your coach is still with us, it might be worth your while to go back and shake his hand and tell him thanks for being at Bastogne. If you read your history, those That were there were a very brave lot.I would love to be able to sit down with those vets buy them a beer and just listen to their storys. Truley a band of brothers.
    Pilot joe

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  34. Dexter said on February 1, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    I took drivers training in the summer of 1964. Our vehicle was a new Ford station wagon with a stick shift. Training drivers on an automatic was verboten.
    Of course, the next summer, the kids trained with an automatic.
    I can’t recall ever seeing a station wagon with a stick before; I suppose the school had to make a special request.
    I decided to get some extra credit that summer so I made a poster-project.
    I always folded my paper-route Journal-Gazettes in the cop station so I knew the night cop and the chief of police, and I asked them for some photographs of wrecks I might borrow for a while for my project: “DON’T LET THIS HAPPEN TO Y O U !!”

    The chief gave me some of most goddam gruesome photographs of human carnage anyone has ever seen…one man in a suit was on a gurney and one leg was completely turned backward, blood smeared everywhere…other pics showed mutilations and amputated limbs sticking out of shattered car and truck windows , all too graphic to explain any more even to the hardened and seasoned journalists here at nnc dot com. I went into mild shock the first time I saw them, and you should have seen the teacher’s face when I brought it to class.
    Note to brianstouder: The teacher was Sheriff Ken Fries’s dad,he was a very calm and cool teacher, and he knew what to do: 1) ask me where the hell I got those photographs, and 2) take them back right now. But at least I did make one girl vomit in class.

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  35. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 1, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    Joe — I did; he was the second to shake my hand when I came back from the Marines . . . the first was a mustang History teacher I had who covered as much of the Pacific as Coach did of Europe. Good stories . . . driving instruction, not so much! 😉

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  36. nancy said on February 1, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    There’s a fascinating book out there called “What Cops Know,” basically a collection of over-a-beer anecdotes from police all over. I recall one line about fatal accidents, by way of saying they’re almost always more repulsive than garden-variety homicides: “Some people look like they’ve been through a veg-a-matic.”

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  37. Crabby said on February 1, 2010 at 3:18 pm

    Beb -It was Audi 5000 series cars that had an unintended acceleration problem 20 years ago. The NTSB spent a few years researching and declared the cause “pedal misapplication” – the pedals were too close together on that model and it was easy to press on both the brake and the accelerator at the same time.

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  38. rfs said on February 1, 2010 at 3:23 pm


    20 years ago it was Audi, not GM, that had the unintended acceleration problems. This led to the change that required the driver to have his foot on the brake before shifting out of park.

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  39. brian stouder said on February 1, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    re: “What Cops Know”

    I remember the truly awful crash photos the showed us in the summer Driver’s Education (do the schools still do that?)

    One guy was burned so comprehesively that his skeleton was more exposed than not.

    The biggest lesson I learned was – I didn’t want to be a police or a fire fighter

    Christy – no disrespect intended regarding the fellow in the awful crash. The thing that struck me was – why would he be on the phone to 911? Maybe the driver was NOT the 911 caller, but if he was….then one wonders

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  40. Joe Kobiela said on February 1, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    We at Garrett had a little old man janitor who also drove school bus and farmed on the side. Nicest guy you could ever meet.I never gave him a second glance, I graduated in 1976, found out last year he was a P-47 thunderbolt pilot. Flew out of England, came back and never flew again. You never know!!
    Pilot Joe

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  41. Jeff Borden said on February 1, 2010 at 3:54 pm


    It was a rite of passage for the cops in the Accident Investigation Squad to show a folder of the most gruesome photographs to the rookie night police reporter. The fiery crashes were, indeed, the worst. They had a picture of a victim whose VW Beetle had exploded in flames after impact and it was one of the creepiest things I’d ever seen. His body was frozen in mid-motion as he had tried to reach for the passenger’s door. The fingers of his left hand had melted into the plastic steering wheel. His mouth was open in a howl. It looked something like those figures from Pompeii, which were preserved when they were coated in wet ash. One of the guys showing me these photos was the fellow who had been tasked with removing the man’s fingers from the steering wheel. On television, they usually show fire squad guys removing the corpses, but in Columbus, at least back then, the fire guys left if there was no pulse and it fell to the coppers to remove the body.

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  42. brian stouder said on February 1, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    Joe – My gym teacher at South Side back in the day was Mr Stebing. Although he never spoke of it, I learned in later years that he hit Omaha Beach, in June of 1944. Whether he was part of the first wave or not, that was an amazing thing to learn. Good God in Heaven.

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  43. A. Riley said on February 1, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    I had the wrestling coach for Health & Safety one summer in Logansport, and he would have us bring in clippings about wrecks and read them aloud as he’d rub his hand over his little bullet head and groan, “Aw jeez. Oh man. Aw that’s awful.”

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  44. Julie Robinson said on February 1, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    Way back in 1972 my Dad made me change a tire as part of getting my license. No doubt it was a good thing to know but now I just keep renewing my AAA membership because I’d like to avoid repeating the experience.

    Dad’s reporting rounds always began at the police station and he would often give us tantalizing bits of info about street justice in cases where the evidence wasn’t strong enough for the courts. We girls often hung out with him while he was using their darkroom on the weekends, and this being a sleepy little town, we had the run of the building. Since I never saw anyone in a cell, he must have phoned ahead to find out the occupation status before he took us along. For a little girl it seemed a dangerous and exotic place. Happily, I haven’t needed to see one from the inside since.

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  45. Jeff Borden said on February 1, 2010 at 4:43 pm

    Somehow, I missed the Miss America pageant this weekend –what cable channel now has the rights??– but I just came across a cute clip of all the contestants introducing themselves for the first time. Sydnee Waggoner noted that she was from Alaska, adding, “And no, I can’t see Russia from my house.”

    Folks, when even a beauty contestant from Alaska is cracking on She Who Must Not Be Named, the party is over for Our Lady of Wasilla. Especially when that quote is paired with recent federal filings showing that S.P.’s PAC has spent some $60,000 buying copies of her own book to mail to supporters. The PAC, of course, is supposed to be plowing money into the causes S.P. supports, but those who have contributed must’ve forgotten that the biggest cause she supports is herself.

    She is a grifter. Period.

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  46. Rana said on February 1, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    I feel sometimes like I’m on the edge of a generational divide when it comes to being able to drive a manual transmission; I can do it, but most of my friends (and my fiancé – which is a bit of a pain for road trips) who are a few years younger can’t. My current car, a ’96 Honda Civic, has been driven for all but 11 of its 96,000+ miles with my butt in the driver’s seat, and my clutch is still good, so I must be doing something right. About the only time the stick shift frustrates me is when I’m driving in slow traffic surrounded by people in automatics – the braking and acceleration curves for the two types of vehicle are noticeably different – I can drive up steep hills fairly competently, and don’t fear the downshift two-step.

    I don’t remember being shown particularly gruesome photos in Driver’s Ed, but we did have to watch a laughably bad film called “Blood on the Highway” as some sort of warning. We alternated days in the trailer filled with fake dashboards and a movie featuring lots of curves and children dashing out between parked cars that always began by intoning “You… Are the Driver,” with live-driving days in which we’d go out in carloads and be terrified by the one bad driver as the trainer stomped his training brakes through the floor. They hadn’t invented beta blockers then, so I have no idea what the dude was on to stay so calm.

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  47. Dexter said on February 1, 2010 at 6:08 pm

    for Pilot Joe:

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  48. paddyo' said on February 1, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    I’ve got a ’98 five-speed Civic sedan that’s at 133K and counting and (knock wood/cross fingers) still has a decent and working clutch.

    I occasionally drive a new Toyota minivan (one of the few models NOT recalled) in our Denver vanpool to and from work and thus, with the automatic trannie, lament the inability to let a judicious downshift or two help with braking, assist with cruddy weather/road conditions, etc. — all those benefits that have endeared me to manual transmission cars all my life.

    My only driver-training memory of note was an episode at the wheel of a 1968 Pontiac Firebird three-speed stick-shift that the high school made available to us. Ahhh, yes, California in the pre-Prop 13 days: Driver’s ed (classroom) AND driver training (in the car) as actual school curriculum courses, not some learn-it-on-your-own-dime thing as in so many other states.

    Anyway, we (myself, the instructor, and another student in the backseat, awaiting his turn) were on a winding, semi-rural, two-lane state highway outside of town (Watsonville, CA) that shared the corridor with a freight railroad line. We were in the outside lane, curving left, when in the inside, oncoming lane up ahead appeared a big ol’ honkin’ semi-rig. We were both doing at least 45-50 mph.

    And then came the throat-grabber — due to the right combination of distance, curvature of road, etc.:

    An even bigger diesel locomotive up ahead — on an unseen track to the outside of my lane — suddenly swung into view, appearing to have pulled out from behind the tractor-trailer rig to pass, in MY lane.

    It was a heart-stopping moment for all of us, even the instructor. He even did that stomp-foot-on-front-passenger-floor-in-vain thing that our moms and dads would do (mine, anyway) in a tight traffic spot when we teens were at the wheel of the family car (Ford Country Squire station wagon, in my case).

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  49. MichaelG said on February 1, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    Jeff B., I had a couple of those old spider wrenches at the house in Auburn but forgot to take one when I moved down to Sacto. Since the car was in front of my house I had access to a 3/4″ deep well socket and a nice breaker bar. That little scissors jack sucks though. My insurance covers this stuff but I couldn’t see the wait or the hassle.

    We saw one of those gruesome movies in Driver’s Ed with all the icky bodies. As almost 16 yr old boys we had to act like it was cool.

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  50. Rana said on February 1, 2010 at 6:46 pm

    paddyo’ , your invocation of the Pontiac Firebird brought back memories. The car that I learned on in school (California in 1985) was, in the words of our snakeskin-boot-clad instructor, “a sage-green Pon-tee-yack.” Ours was equipped with panic brakes for the instructor, but otherwise unremarkable. Makes me wonder if the State made some sort of deal with Pontiac for the things.

    And, ah, the foot-stomping thing. I don’t have kids, and I still find myself doing that on occasion. That, and (if I’m driving), that thing one does where you fling out an arm to keep a person (or bag) from flying out of the passenger seat when you brake.

    I remember one point when my father was teaching me to drive on the freeways (something not covered by the standard driver’s ed program, thank god) and I was coming off fast on an off-ramp. It was one of those ones that curves and merges in with the road below, instead of coming to a stop sign. I was having trouble managing speed, curve, and watching traffic simultaneously. I made it, but I still remember Dad saying (imagine increasing tempo and volume here): “Turn, turn, brake, brake, Turn. Turn. Brake! Brake! TURN! BRAKE! TURN! BRAKE!”

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  51. Christy S. said on February 1, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    Brian (Stouder), the driver’s BIL in the backseat was the 911 caller, not the driver. The driver was incorrectly reported as the caller (at first), which indeed would have been difficult to understand.

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  52. Deborah said on February 1, 2010 at 7:37 pm

    Only drive stick, always will, check. Saw a gruesome movie while in Drivers Ed in highschool, check. My dad made me learn how to change a tire, check. As a parent stomped my foot on the “brake” on the passenger side way too many times, check. And know a survivor of both Bas­togne and Normandy (not the same guy though), check.

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  53. Dorothy said on February 1, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    I’ve been hesitant to mention this since seeing Sue @ 11, but the urge is too great. Considering today’s topic and all, I feel like I have to share. And forgive me if I’ve shared this when we previously discussed driving a stick (but I’m pretty sure I never have).

    When my son was trying to learn to drive our manual tranny Silverado nine years ago (!!), he was expressing his frustration to his godmother, my sister Diane. She was giving him a pep talk, and wrapped it up by saying “And Josh – when you finally master it and you’re in control of the vehicle? You’re the coolest person in the world!” I think of that every time I’m behind the wheel of our truck and zooming down the road, shifting comfortably and watching the world fly by.

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  54. brian stouder said on February 1, 2010 at 10:03 pm

    As a par­ent stomped my foot on the “brake” on the pas­sen­ger side way too many times, check

    Deborah – I can ALWAYS get a rise out of my lovely wife, when she’s driving. Invariably, she’s hard on the power and hard on the brakes – and when she goes for the brakes I’ve gotten in the habit of putting my hands on the dashboard and bracing myself.

    Makes her mad every. single. time.

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  55. alex said on February 1, 2010 at 10:09 pm

    My driver’s ed teacher was one of my neighbors, now an Alzheimer’s patient. And one of the movies we were shown in driver’s ed class featured an Amos ‘n’ Andy pair of black guys yukking it up like a coupla idjits (acted out after the fact) juxtaposed with crash scenes of two real-life black guys in a ’57 Ford who looked like they’d been through the Veg-O-Matic.

    I learned to drive years before driver’s ed, thanks to the country back roads around chez moi, and the driver’s ed teacher still freaked out that I was able to smoke a cigarette and carry on a conversation full of gesticulations and and casual blase-ness while rocketing down the road as if I’d been driving for a lifetime. We were in a ’77 Catalina.

    I didn’t learn to drive a stick until a couple of years later. It was humiliating. I kept killing the engine and my dad was cursing me out in front of the neighbors. But I came to love it and still think having to be fully engaged in driving with a manual tranny is probably why I’m alive today all those times I managed to make it home and probably would have set the Breathalyzer afire and my urinalysis would have melted the test tube.

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  56. beb said on February 1, 2010 at 10:48 pm

    Jeff(TMMO) I avoided the war stories during driver’s ed. Oddly, I didn’t hear many war stories while going up. My Dad was in the war but never talked about what he did. He wasn’t in combat. Every summer we’d packed up for a week or two to visit his buddy from the war, Dad and he were both farmers, but if they ever reminisced about their time in the army, it wasn’t while the kids were around.

    In later years I was friends with an older man who had been a ball turrent gunner. I can’t remember which plane that would be. My friend loved to tell stories, and told many about his time in the Army Air Force, none of the various missions he went on. As I recall he refused to fly in a plane for years afterwards. However a few years before he died he was given the opportunity to take a flight on a rebuilt B-17 (I think) and was overjoyed to be able to make the short flight from Ypsilante to Pontiac and back. It’s interesting how some people endlessly relive even the worst stuff of their time in WWII and how others just don’t want to say another thing about it.

    Christy S. – From the first when I read (just today) about this off-duty CHP officer dying because he couldn’t stop his care, I felt like something didn’t add it. Now I’m hearing that Toyota is using a lot of electronics instead of mechanical connections, brakes that fail, and so on. So it’s beginning to sound like there could be a car that you can’t brake, can’t shift into neutral and can’t turn off the engine. What a recipe for disaster.

    You what’s scary, airplanes are increasing going to electronic controls instead of hydraulics.

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  57. Kim said on February 1, 2010 at 11:24 pm

    OK – Signal 30 is the seminal 1959 film portraying the horrors of reckless driving. Watch it here. I love the disconnect between the “love is a many splendored thing” soundtrack and pix of the bisected young dad in a plaid shirt. Imagine seeing this in h.s. driver ed class – I did, and I bet Bob (not Greene) did, too!

    In VA a kid can get a permit at 15 yrs, 6 mo. They have to pass a written test at the DMV, then they are good to go with no actual driving but mere mastery of the written exam (what color is a stop sign?). Then – this is the excellent part – they have to drive always with someone 21 or older who possesses a valid DL. That person can be 18-21, but only if they are a sib, step-sib, half-sib or legal guardian. Then, after you have had your permit for 9 mo. and are at least 16 yrs. 3 mo., you can get your DL but only if you have had 45 hours of behind-the-wheel training (15 have to have been after dark) AND you have completed a state-approved driver education course (an extra $200 or so, since they don’t offer it at h.s. anymore). Upon completion of that course the kid surrenders the plastic photo ID DL and carries a piece of paper until the judge summons him/her. Then you go to court and listen to the judge (who happens to be my neighbor, whose house my kid has to drive past in order to get out of the ‘hood) talk about how this is a good day for him, since he is granting a privilege and not taking one away. Then he and the bailiff share true-life horror stories of the recent past (sadly, always a couple in the past month), and tell the parents that they may hand over the DL when they see fit, and likewise may take it away. The kids treat it all “blah blah blah” because they are young and invincible; the parents listen all rapt because they know it’s all about luck, really. How else would we have survived?

    You can really slow down a kid’s road progress by presenting a car with manual transmission. Which I did, happily, even as I practiced Lamaze breathing in the h.s. parking lot as he practiced starting, stopping, turning, pealing out.

    One last thing: In Virginia, they used to take kids on field trips to the RJ Reynolds Factory, where all children were given comp packs of cigarettes as they left. My neighbor’s kids tell me how they sat in the school bus on the way home from Richmond puffing away on cigs.

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  58. brian stouder said on February 2, 2010 at 12:01 am

    Kim – the image of a school bus loaded with kids smokin’ em on the way home from RJ Reynolds is just too funny!

    I remember a bus trip to Kellogg’s in Battle Creek (think Fred MacMurray when you say that), back when Kellogg’s actually did plant tours.

    I recall seeing a woman sitting on a stool dropping prizes into cereal boxes as the streamed past her (and I thought that must have been a pretty boring job most days)…and everybody got a snack box of cereal on the way out (most of which got spilled on the bus on the way home, come to think of it)

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  59. Dexter said on February 2, 2010 at 1:04 am

    Kim, I played baseball in Winston-Salem, NC, and we stayed in the old Zinzendorf Hotel. Right next door was the RJR factory where they made Camels and Winstons.
    We would take tours whenever we could, because at the end of the tour we received free smokes. In that atmosphere, nearly everyone smoked. The very pretty young women who gave the tours all smoked constantly as they handed out our comp packs of cigarettes. Most of us ballplayers smoked; I was eighteen and the year was 1968, and smoking was very much in vogue.
    I still remember the Winstons in process, they would have a long filter in the middle, tobacco-packed paper on both ends, and were sliced in two by a huge blade, hundreds at a time, making two perfect filter smokes.
    That entire block was torn down 40 years ago. I suppose they still make products at the RJR Whittaker Park plant out by Wake Forest, but maybe that’s gone too.

    Brian: As a grade school kid we toured WAWK-AM Radio station in Kendallville, which was so cool, mostly for the news ticker tape. This must have been 1957 or 1958. I wanted to be a radio man instantly, until stop two on our field trip, a visit to Puritan Ice Cream Company. Free ice cream! I was sure I would eventually work there , to hell with my mind-budded radio plans.
    Larry King-type moment: Worst criminal—Capone or Dillinger, your thoughts–be right back ….

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  60. moe99 said on February 2, 2010 at 2:06 am

    I remember being on airline flights where small packages of cigarettes came with your meals.

    And then, when I worked at the KY AG’s office from 78-78, there was a time when Anita Madden, wife of Preston Madden, who owned the horse farm, Hamburg Place, hosted a dinner in honor of the states’ attorneys general (National Association of Attorneys General or NAAG) who were meeting in Lexington for their national meeting.

    Festive tents were erected in the pastures of Hamburg Place and part of the centerpiece on each table in those tents, was a crystal vase filled with cigarettes for the enjoyment of the attendees. Ah yes, the Maddens were also tobacco farmers as well as owners of a highly regarded horse farm.

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  61. Deborah said on February 2, 2010 at 7:25 am

    Moe, when I worked on the design of a bourbon museum in KY the client Brown Forman, headquartered in Louisville allowed smoking in their offices because as one of the workers told me, when tobacco goes, so goes booze. I have no idea if that’s true, but it was weird to sit in an office with someone puffing away after it had been banned in so many places for so long. In Chicago, Kraft Foods allowed smoking in their office for a long time, don’t know if they still do. It’s hard to remember back when it was totally normal to see people smoking at their desk at work.

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  62. basset said on February 2, 2010 at 7:44 am

    I used to work with a guy who’d grown up in Manhattan… who said his dad gave two directions while teaching him to drive: “put your car where you want it” and “nobody wants to hit you.”

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  63. John said on February 2, 2010 at 8:06 am

    Kim, grew up in Virginia, did driver’s ed in HS (gym teacher as instructor), and watched Signal 30. Thanks for the reference!

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  64. Pam said on February 2, 2010 at 9:08 am

    Is this an actual documented 911 call? It sounds like an urban legend. If my car was accelerating wildly out of control, the last thing I would do is use my phone. But I’m old and not so able to multi-task while driving. I would instead be so focused on stopping my damn car that calling someone wouldn’t even enter my mind. Jamming the car into neutral would be (I think), second nature to most. I don’t know — I’ll go ask Joe what he would do in the same situation. Get the opinion of the young generation and let you know.

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  65. Christy S. said on February 3, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    Again, Pam, it wasn’t the driver who was calling, it was a passenger in the backseat. And no, the call isn’t an “urban legend.” I don’t recommend listening to it, though.

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