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Pushing the right pedal

Hiroko Tabuchi

Two pedals, centimetres apart — one for acceleration and the other for brakes. For years, a Japanese inventor has argued that this most basic of car designs is dangerously flawed.

The side-by-side pedal arrangement, the inventor says, can cause drivers mistakenly to floor the accelerator instead of the brakes, especially under stress. The solution? A single pedal that accelerates the car when pressed with the side of the foot. More to the point, when the pedal is pushed down, it always activates the brakes.

“We have a natural tendency to stomp down when we panic,” said the inventor, Masuyuki Naruse, who owns a small factory in southwest Japan. “The automakers call it driver error. But what if their design's all wrong?”

Mr. Naruse (74) is one of a handful of people who have designed combined brake-accelerator pedals in an effort to prevent accidents caused by unintended acceleration, which has come under a spotlight since charges that some Toyota vehicles accelerate without warning.

Regulators in Sweden are testing a single-pedal prototype by the inventor Sven Gustafsson. In Japan, about 130 cars equipped with Mr. Naruse's pedal, mostly owned by friends and acquaintances, have been declared street-legal, including Mr. Naruse's own Mitsubishi Diamante sedan. He holds patents for the Naruse (pronounced NAH—roo—say) Pedal in Japan, the United States and six other countries.

Toyota, which attributes reports of unintended acceleration to accelerator pedals that stick or get caught under floor mats, has recalled 8.5 million vehicles worldwide to address the problems.

It has also gently suggested that in some cases the driver might have been at fault.

Last month, it said that an internal investigation of 2,000 vehicles reported to have accelerated unintentionally found “pedal misapplication” in most cases, with drivers mistakenly pressing the accelerator instead of the brakes.

Ririko Takeuchi, a Tokyo-based spokeswoman for Toyota, said the company could not comment on Mr. Naruse's pedal design. But she said Toyota “listens to ideas we receive from the public, because we believe there's always room for improvement.”

In 2009, nearly 6,700 traffic accidents involving 37 deaths and more than 9,500 injuries were thought to have been caused by drivers in Japan mistakenly pushing the accelerator instead of the brakes, said the Institute for Traffic Accident Research and Data Analysis, a government affiliated group based in Tokyo.

Car safety specialists say it is likely that tens of thousands of crashes in the United States have also been caused by pedal errors. In an accident in Santa Monica, California, in 2003, a driver believed to have hit the wrong pedal killed 10 people when his car plunged into an outdoor market.

Since at least the 1980s, researchers have pointed to the propensity for drivers to press the accelerator instead of the brakes. In a 1989 study, Richard A. Schmidt, a psychologist now at the University of California, Los Angeles, described how disruptions to neuromuscular processes can cause the foot to deviate from the intended motion, even slipping from the brake to the accelerator. And when the car accelerates unexpectedly, Mr. Schmidt said, even experienced drivers can panic, “braking” even harder.

In experiments in Japan by Katsuya Matsunaga, an engineering and psychology specialist at Kyushu Sangyo University in Fukuoka City, drivers were asked to switch feet from the accelerator to the brakes on cue, at times while accompanied by startling noises. Subjects under stress sometimes hesitated or found it difficult to switch from one pedal to the other, he said.

The current standard pedal arrangement is a function of automotive evolution.

Drivers of Ford's 1908 Model T manoeuvred an accelerator lever on the steering column and three pedals: for shifting gears, reversing and braking. Over time, the advent of various manual and automatic transmissions has required different footwork.

Mr. Naruse's design is a unified pedal, shaped to accommodate the entire foot. On the right side is an accelerator bar. At any point, the driver can push down on the pedal to activate the brakes, while automatically releasing the accelerator bar. — New York Times News Service

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