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Sudden unintended acceleration and the carwash industry

March 16, 2011
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By now, many operators are familiar with the rare, but serious risk of sudden unintended acceleration (SUA) at their carwash. In 2010 alone, there were two fatalities reported at carwashes related to SUA. Both involved Jeep vehicles and the victims were carwash workers.

For one man, the mission of preventing and eliminating SUA deaths in the carwash industry has become a very real goal. Doug Newman has owned and operated a multiple location carwash and fast oil change business in the Connecticut counties of Fairfield and New Haven. He has been active in the carwash industry for over 22 years and has served on the boards of the Connecticut Carwash Association, the Northeast Carwash Group and the International Carwash Association™.

For the last few years, Newman has extensively researched and tracked incidents of SUA at carwash locations. In 2008, he created a website (http://sites.google.com/site/jeepsua/home) devoted to the issue and in 2010, he encouraged operators to write to their local representatives about SUA.

This month, Newman is sharing his research with Professional Carwashing & Detailing.

Professional Carwashing & Detailing: Please tell us about how you got interested and involved with cases of SUA?

Doug Newman: In the mid 1990s I heard of Jeep SUA, but did not think much of it and dismissed it to pedal misapplication until I personally started up a Jeep Grand Cherokee that redlined at start up. Fortunately the vehicle was in neutral and I shut the engine off.

Then somewhere around 2001 or 2002, we had a Jeep suddenly accelerate. It jumped a curb and landed in a landscaped area.

There was no damage to the vehicle and we thought that it was driver error. About 18 or 24 months later we had another incident where a Jeep suddenly accelerated upon starting-up, resulting in a three-car pile-up and a $35,000 damage claim.

At this point, I became convinced there was a problem with Jeep Cherokees/Grand Cherokees and was beginning to learn of hundreds of similar incidents as internet communications became increasingly accessible.

PC&D: What vehicles, in your opinion, are most susceptible to suddenly accelerating?

DN: Not just my opinion, but the data I am aware of proves that Jeep Cherokees/Grand Cherokees have an exponentially greater rate of suddenly accelerating than any other vehicle make/model.

PC&D: How should carwashes deal with these vehicles when customers bring them in for a cleaning?

DN: Depends on if the customer is in the vehicle (exterior wash) or not (full service wash). In either case, the vehicle should be put into park after going through the conveyor carwash and started from park. The vehicle should not be shifted into drive unless the engine RPM is normal and the brake is fully depressed (shift-brake interlock prevents shifting from park unless the brake is depressed). The ICA also has a very good set of recommended procedures too.

PC&D: What measures are being taken to prevent SUA cases by the car manufacturers?

DN: None that I’m aware of because the car manufactures are convinced this is driver error and not product malfunction on their part.

PC&D: There have been several deaths and injuries at carwashes as a result of SUA. How would you gauge the country’s reaction to these events?

DN: The incidents should be but are not treated like an epidemic. Case in point is how Congress in 2010 put Toyota in its crosshairs, yet SUA is far worse with Jeep yet nothing is being done about it.

PC&D: How can operators prevent SUA at their carwashes?

DN: In many years the problem will hopefully end as these cars come off the road as they reach the end of their useful life, but carwash owners and operators should always revisit their policies and procedures to handling vehicles, particularly as technology changes dramatically with many vehicle make/models.