Most vehicles manufactured today use fuel injection to regulate the flow of gasoline into the engine, but not too long ago that flow of gas was regulated by a butterfly valve in the throat of a carburetor. The butterfly valve was linked to the accelerator pedal. When the accelerator pedal was pressed, the valve opened; when it was released, a small spring on the carburetor -- called a pedal return spring -- closed the valve.
That made the pedal return spring an accident waiting to happen. At any given moment, that small piece of spiral-shaped steel was the only thing that kept the engine from going to full throttle and staying there. Those springs occasionally broke, and when they did they invariably broke without warning. The result was instantaneous, unexpected and horribly frightening, especially in cars with a massive V-8 engine. Gas poured through the carburetor. The engine roared. The vehicle leapt forward.
One evening, a large four-door sedan filled with passengers and fitted with a V-8 engine under its hood and a torque convertor on its automatic transmission, turned a corner onto the main street of Columbus, Ohio. As it made the turn, the driver pressed down hard on the accelerator and the engine went suddenly and unexpectedly to full speed. The driver (no I'm not going to tell you if it was a male or female), struggled desperately to slow the sedan with its brakes, but the powerful V-8 accelerated the heavy vehicle to 45 miles per hour in the time it took you to read the last two sentences.
The traffic was light enough so that the driver was able to steer around other vehicles as the car accelerated down the first block. The light ahead was red, but as the heavy sedan careened around other vehicles it miraculously turned green. Through the intersection the vehicle shot, now traveling at more than 60 miles per hour. All four windows rolled down. Heads came out. Driver and passengers shouted, "Look out! Look out!"
Past more vehicles it careened. A second traffic light loomed ahead. Miraculously, it too turned green just in time. Down a third block it sped, still filled with driver and passengers shouting, "Look out! Look out!"
It was now headed straight for the busiest intersection in town, filled with a double stream of fragile humans crossing from one corner to another. Without slowing, close to two tons of steel and glass plowed directly into the pedestrians, stopping only when it smashed into the wall of a large office building on one corner of the intersection. The injuries were horrific. It was one of the worst traffic accidents the city ever experienced.
The first question, of course, is simple. I'm willing to bet you are already asking it. Why in the world didn't someone in that car simply reach down and turn the key into the off position?
It's natural, I suppose, for us to feel superior to those folks in that careening sedan, hanging their heads out the windows and shouting, "Look out! Look out!" But the other questions that horrifying accident bring to mind are the ones that really need to be asked: "What if it were me? Would I remember to turn that key? Am I all that different from the folks in that car? And if I'm not, what can I do to be as ready as possible for that unexpected moment that may be waiting for me somewhere along the road ahead?"