Letter: Bring Back The Car Ignition Switch

With the recent tragic accident in Delray Beach, a family of tourists was killed when a pickup truck suddenly accelerated on its own to speeds up to about 100 MPH. Why not just turn the key off? Why not shift into neutral? Well, for reasons outlined below, that doesn’t always work when the vehicle’s computer decides otherwise.

This may come as a surprise to the younger crowd, but in the old days, cars had these things called ignition switches. If you turned the ignition key off, the car would stop running. No ifs or buts about it, the car’s engine stopped running and stopped right then. Not so these days. On many newer cars, the car’s ignition key and transmission shifter are just suggestions to the car’s internal computer. The computer is what’s really in charge — not the driver.

Some cars have made no bones about this and have totally done away with the ignition switch and have replaced it with a button to start and stop the car. Others have kept the nostalgia look and feel of the old ignition switches, but they are fakes.

The transmission shifter is electronic, too, in many cars. In the old days, there was a rod or other mechanical linkage from the shifter to the transmission. Now its just a wire to the computer. So, if the car’s computer already has it out for you, the shifter might not work either.

Do you have one of these cars? Does your car continue to crank even if you just bump the starter? If your car is in drive at a slow speed in a safe place, can you turn the engine off? How about shifting into neutral when you are braking? Have you ever returned to your car to find that its running after you turned it off? Danger, Danger, Will Robinson!

So, why would a harmless computer ever want to hurt you? Anyone with a computer or smart phone knows that sometimes they just crash. They don’t need a reason. It could be solar flares, a CBer passing by or even a hacker messing around.

The bottom line here is that we must tell Congress to mandate that all cars and trucks be equipped with a mechanical engine kill switch of some kind that is easily accessible to the driver. Such a switch should be connected directly to the fuel pump or other critical component such that it would be impossible for the car’s computer to override the driver’s decision to stop the engine. The driver, not the car’s computer, needs to be in absolute control over the running status of the engine.

Computers are always going to crash. If we don’t return control to the driver, accidents like the one in Delray Beach are going to become more frequent.

Dennis Hawkins, The Acreage