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VROO-O-O-M, BANG!

The following is a partial excerpt from an article by Csaba Csere in the June 1987 issue of Car and Driver, entitled "Audi Agonistes".

"You get into your car, start the engine, and move the shift lever from park into reverse or drive. Suddenly the car takes off like a shot. You go for the brakes, but no amount of pressure will slow the car. It continues to accelerate, mowing down everything and everyone in its path—until finally it runs into something solid enough to stop it.

You have just become the victim of a typical incident of unintended acceleration. It occurs only in cars equipped with automatic transmissions, but it happens with cold engines and warm engines, in new cars and old cars, to seasoned drivers and novices. Most recently, it has been reported to occur with alarming frequency in Audi 5000s.

All the parties involved in the growing unintended-acceleration controversy—the consumer groups, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the accident victims, the news media, even the car manufacturers—agree with this description of the typical incident. The consensus shatters, however, when the discussion shifts to the cause of unintended acceleration and what should be done to prevent it. Naming the cause of a problem, after all, tends to indicate who is to blame, and that is an issue with serious economic and psychological implications for many of the parties involved.

And there are a number of parties involved. Over the past fifteen years, the NHTSA has conducted more than 50 distinct investigations of unintended acceleration (or "sudden acceleration," to use the agency’s term). The car lines investigated include models manufactured by General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, AMC, Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Subaru, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Saab, Volvo, and of course, Audi. The more than 4000 reported incidents have resulted in more than 2700 accidents, about 1650 injuries, and at least 47 deaths.

The good news is that all but four of these investigations have been closed, the NHTSA having concluded that the incidents were caused by driver error. It should also be noted that the number of accidents resulting from unintended acceleration is only a minuscule fraction of the total number of traffic accidents. Audi 5000s, however, have been involved in a disproportionate number of these cases, and that has become big news indeed.

As of March 1, Audi 5000s from model years 1978 through 1986 have been implicated in 1380 unintended-acceleration incidents, according to Volkswagen of America, Audi’s corporate parent. And depending on whether one puts one’s trust in Audi, the NHTSA, or the Center for Auto Safety (a consumer watchdog group founded by Ralph Nader), these incidents have resulted in from 570 to 666 accidents, from 270 to 330 injuries, and from five to seven fatalities. Given that the total number of Audi 5000s sold in America with automatic transmissions and gasoline engines (diesels have not been implicated) is about 250,000, there has been one report of unintended acceleration for about every 180 cars.

The rate is about five times as high as that of the Nissan 280ZX and 300ZX models, which have the second-highest runaway rate on the NHTSA’s list, and ten to a hundred times as high as the rates of most of the other models that have been investigated for unintended acceleration. It is the frequency of the 5000s involvement in these incidents that has focused so much attention on Audi’s flagship."

 
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