When Drivers Mistake the Gas for the Brake with Deadly Consequences in Pennsylvania

Accidentally pressing the gas pedal instead of the brake can have tragic results. This type of error, sometimes called pedal confusion or pedal misapplication, leads to unnecessary collisions, injuries, and fatalities on Pennsylvania roads each year. While these incidents are usually chalked up to driver error, research shows pedal confusion is a complex issue impacted by vehicle design, mental and physical conditions, and environmental factors.

How and Why Pedal Confusion Happens

Pressing the wrong pedal when trying to stop sounds unlikely, but it occurs more often than most realize. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 16,000 crashes a year are caused by pedal error. Some contributing factors include:

Vehicle Design Flaws

Some vehicles are more prone to pedal confusion, especially if the pedals are positioned close together or at different heights. Confusing placement can cause a driver to catch the edge of the gas, thinking it’s the brake. Other design problems like loose pedals, heavy pedal resistance, and low pedal ratio also increase the error risk.

Unfamiliar Vehicles

Drivers making the switch from manual to automatic transmission are at a higher risk of pedal confusion. Those operating a rental car, borrowed vehicle, or new car are also more likely to hit the wrong pedal due to unfamiliarity. Even driving a different model or year vehicle than normal can increase pedal mix-ups if the driver is used to a specific pedal feel and travel.

High Stress Situations

Slamming on the brakes requires fast reflexes. In stressful or panic situations, like trying to avoid a crash, the wrong pedal may accidentally get activated in the heat of the moment. Fatigue and other high cognitive load conditions can also interfere with smooth pedal operation. Even routine stopping can lead to pedal confusion if the driver is overly worried about being late, getting lost, or any number of concerns that distract from safe driving.

Age and Physical Ability

Older drivers experience pedal misapplication at higher rates partially due to natural age-related declines in vision, flexibility, strength, and reaction time. Those with neurological, muscular, or joint conditions impacting mobility may also struggle with precise pedal control. Impaired sensation in the legs or feet due to diabetes, prior injuries, or other health issues can make it difficult to differentiate pedals.

Distraction and Inattention

Any form of distraction or inattention, even for a split second, can lead to pedal confusion. Drivers focused on electronics, passengers, food, or an event outside the vehicle often revert to reflex and push the wrong pedal. Even conversations with passengers can distract drivers enough to lead to pedal errors. Some studies suggest distracted driving has overtaken drunken driving as the number one cause of pedal mix-ups.

Preventing Pedal Error Collisions

While some pedal confusion is inevitable, several strategies can help reduce occurrence:

Improved Vehicle Design

Manufacturers can design pedals with more space in between, installation at varying heights, and natural contours to guide the foot. Strong tactile pedals, progressive pedal resistance, and larger pedal size also aid pedal differentiation. Better pedal lighting and visibility help drivers in low-light conditions.

Driver Training

Incorporating pedal confusion training into driver education programs better prepares new drivers. Training drivers to consciously think “gas or brake?” before moving their foot can help prevent reflexive errors. Emphasizing pedal positioning and feel in different models can improve adaptation between vehicles. Simulators recreating high-stress driving scenarios also help improve response.

Limit Distractions

Eliminating distractions inside and outside the vehicle allows drivers to devote full attention to pedal operation. Adjusting mirrors, radio, temperature controls, and navigation before driving can help minimize in-drive distractions. Avoiding cell phone use while driving is also critical.

Medical Checkups

Drivers should regularly monitor vision, mobility, strength, cognition, and reaction time. Bringing up any pedal control concerns with a doctor can identify underlying medical conditions to address. Doctors may recommend physical therapy, vision correction, or switching to vehicles with hand controls in some cases.

Vehicle Orientation

Taking time to get familiar with a new or borrowed vehicle’s pedals builds muscle memory and feel for pedal pressure and travel. Even adjusting seat positions can help drivers differentiate pedals. Rental car companies should provide short orientations highlighting pedal operation.

Liability for Pennsylvania Crashes Caused by Pedal Error

Pedal confusion often results in rear-end collisions, runaway vehicles, single-car crashes, or tragic pedestrian accidents. Determining fault helps injury victims recover damages from at-fault drivers or potentially vehicle manufacturers.

Driver Negligence

Unless a vehicle defect or other factor caused the pedal mix-up, the driver who hit the wrong pedal is generally considered negligent. Failing to maintain proper control of the vehicle makes the driver liable for resulting damages. Exceptions may apply if the driver experiences an unforeseeable medical issue like sudden unconsciousness. But knowingly driving with medical impairments or distractions that contribute to pedal errors increases liability.

Manufacturer Defect Liability

If a design flaw, like problematic pedal placement or loose pedals, contributed to the pedal error, the vehicle manufacturer may share liability. Proving defective design requires evidence that the design created an unreasonable risk of pedal confusion that safer designs could have prevented. Plaintiffs must show that the safer alternative was cost-effective, technologically feasible, and would have prevented or reduced injury.

Owner Negligence

Commercial vehicle owners can also be liable if allowing an incompetent, unlicensed, or medically impaired driver behind the wheel contributed to a pedal error crash. Providing an unfamiliar vehicle without proper orientation increases owner liability. Negligent maintenance of faulty brakes, loose pedals, or other vehicle defects linked to pedal confusion may apply.

Liability Limits

Damages in pedal confusion cases are limited to economic losses like medical bills, lost income, and property damage. Pain and suffering damages are generally not recoverable unless the at-fault driver exhibited gross negligence or intentional misconduct. Plaintiffs must also overcome defense arguments that pedal confusion is an unforeseeable accident rather than negligence.

Pedal confusion can have catastrophic, even fatal, consequences. While some incidents are unavoidable mistakes, better driver training, improved vehicle designs, medical checkups, and increased focus on the road can help prevent many pedal error collisions in Pennsylvania.

If you or a loved one have suffered harm due to another driver mistakenly hitting the gas instead of the brake, contact our experienced attorneys today for a free consultation on your legal rights and options. With 32 offices in 19 states, including Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Georgia, we are ready and waiting to help. Call now on (888) 477-0597 for a free consultation.