Experts cast doubt on driver’s claim that sudden unintended acceleration caused deadly crash

Posted on : 2024-07-03 17:16 KST Modified on : 2024-07-03 17:46 KST
The main factors that will need to be reviewed are how the car came to a normal stop, whether it emitted the sort of screech characteristics of sudden unintended acceleration, and whether brake lights were on
Police cordon off the area around a car that was at the center of a deadly crash on July 1, 2024, near City Hall Station on the Seoul Metro. (Yonhap)
Police cordon off the area around a car that was at the center of a deadly crash on July 1, 2024, near City Hall Station on the Seoul Metro. (Yonhap)

After a car ran over pedestrians near Seoul City Hall on Monday, killing nine people, there’s been a heated debate over whether the crash was caused by sudden unintended acceleration, as claimed by the driver. While the driver of the car claims that his vehicle “wouldn’t stop” even though he “was riding the brakes,” experts say that some evidence suggests otherwise. 
 
Sudden unintended acceleration refers to the phenomenon in which a vehicle accelerates rapidly, regardless of the driver’s intentions, and a clear cause for that phenomenon is yet to be identified.
 
Controlled stop raises doubts about unintended acceleration
 
Experts state that distinctive characteristics of a vehicle involved in a sudden unintended acceleration accident include the vehicle’s sudden acceleration and a collision-induced halt.
 
As an example, in 2011, a driver who killed a woman in her 70s while driving in Andong, North Gyeongsang Province, was charged with violating the Act on Special Cases concerning the Settlements of Traffic Accidents but was acquitted after the possibility of a vehicle defect (demonstrated by a sudden unintended acceleration) was brought to light.
 
In that incident, the driver’s vehicle did not stop even after colliding consecutively with a telephone pole and another car. The vehicle only stopped after the engine emitted a roaring sound for over a minute.
 
If we look at the circumstances surrounding Monday’s accident, the car zipped toward the sidewalk at a frightening speed, but unlike the vehicles in other sudden unintended acceleration accidents, this car managed to come to a stop slowly.
 
“While it is possible that the car did experience a sudden acceleration and returned to normal shortly afterward, that’s not a typical occurrence,” assessed Kim Pill-soo, a professor of automotive technology at Daelim University College and chairperson of the Automotive Sudden Acceleration Research Society, speaking to the Hankyoreh over the phone. “Videos showing the driver successfully using the brakes to stop the car immediately after the accident can be used as evidence to prove that the vehicle was operating normally.”
 
“If an accident occurs in a short track of road, most people’s heads will go blank and they’ll have no memory of the incident, which then leads many to claim that the accident was caused by sudden unintended acceleration,” Kim added.
 
However, it is difficult to determine whether the offending driver should be held completely responsible simply by looking at the fragments of information available so far.  

“You have to see how the driver reacted, whether they were trying to avoid a collision, and what course they chose to go after striking victims,” suggested Ha Jong-sun, an attorney who has defended many victims suspected of causing sudden unintended acceleration accidents. 

“It is possible that a software reset, which would’ve taken place after a large collision, prompted the brakes to return to normal, after failing to operate properly due to sudden acceleration,” he added. 
 
The police have said they will request the National Forensic Service to analyze the vehicle’s event data recorder (EDR) and other factors to determine whether the incident was a case of sudden unintended acceleration.
 
An EDR is a device that records the speed change of a vehicle before and after a collision, whether the brakes were functioning, and engine speed, providing invaluable data needed to deduce the cause of a crash.
 
Importance of explosive sounds and brake lights
 
Another important factor for determining whether this was a case of sudden unintended acceleration is whether any explosion-like sounds were heard, as they are one of the signs of the phenomenon. Experts also say that the roaring sound emitted during such events is something that most people will have never heard before. Witnesses to Monday’s accident have reported hearing “a gas tank exploding” and “thunderclaps.”
 
Whether the vehicle’s brake lights lit up during the crash will also need to be examined. Brake lights, which are directly connected to the brake pedal without any other intermediary device, are considered the most useful way to indirectly prove accidental acceleration and human error because they light up when the pedal is pressed, regardless of whether the car is started or not.
 
“For the claim that the accident was caused by sudden acceleration to be recognized, video footage must be obtained to prove that the brake lights were on from the beginning to the end of the accident,” said Lee Ho-geun, a professor of automotive engineering at Daeduk University.
 
Controversy over older drivers
 
The fact that the driver was in his late 60s has also prompted many to blame his age for the accident.
 
According to the Korea Road Traffic Authority’s traffic accident analysis system, 20% of all traffic accidents that occurred in 2023 were caused by drivers who were 65 years or older.
 
The total traffic fatality rate (number of fatalities per 100 accidents) for accidents involving drivers 65 and up over the last 10 years (2014-2023) was also significantly higher than the overall average (1.7), at 2.6 fatalities for the age group. 

By Lee Ji-hye, staff reporter

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