Thirty-Five MPH and Broken Brakes
“It’s like that dream people describe, you know? The brakes won’t work. And you need to stop, at least slow down, but the brakes are useless? Like that. Just like that.” It was the best way I could describe what happened to awe-struck onlookers, paramedics, and family that huddled at my side. I was in complete shock and utter disbelief at what had just happened. More than that, I was absolutely dumbfounded that I was even alive.
I’ll start from the beginning. It was Christmas Eve 2007 and I was staying with my parents for the holidays. I lived in the city, a fresh college graduate, and I still hadn’t received the presents I purchased online for my bosses. So, I decided to hop in my car and go to the store to get them; that way I’d get back to the city and be ready to bring them their wrapped presents on Monday. As fate would have it, the universe had other plans.
I jumped into my car, a 2002 Ford Escape. The weather was mild, above freezing, and the roads were clear. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that the next ten minutes of my life would be so completely unpredictable and traumatic. As I approached a stoplight on the way to the store, I pumped my brakes. I was going 35mph. Nothing happened. Pumped them again. Nothing. Pumped them as hard and as quickly as possible. Nothing. My car was cruising at 35mph down a four-lane highway, approaching a red light and cross traffic, and it would not stop.
Thankfully, no traffic was stopped at the light in the right turning lane, because while I was now entering panic-mode, I had to make a turn and avoid cross traffic. Pressing the brakes. 35 mph. Frantically, I let the window down and screamed to traffic from the opposite direction that my brakes weren’t working. Of course, I only looked like a maniac. Luckily, there was a large school parking lot directly after I turned at the light and it was completely empty. I turned into it, knowing that it would give me at least some time to think about a strategy while I circled the space, still going 35 mph. After a couple circles, I realized that I had two options: stay in the car, pray, and accept an early death or jump out of the moving trap.
Odd as it sounds, I managed to think up a quick escape plan. If I angled my car towards the curb around the parking lot, the car would take some time to get over the cement. That way, I’d have time to jump out and land on the snow-covered grass. It would also provide a great blockade for my car so that it would hit the cement sign and stop, therefore avoiding hitting anything, or anyone, else.
It was go-time as I approached the curb, in the most frantic possible state I could have ever imagined.
Opening the door, I took my sore foot off the brakes that refused to work, and launched myself onto the snow between the curb and the still-moving car. It was such a hard fall that I didn’t think quickly enough to move my arm from the tracks of the car and as the back wheels roared up the curb, they rolled right over my straggling right arm. I lay on the ground, not even feeling the pain but trying instead to wake up from this awful nightmare. None of this could really be happening. And the car … The car wasn’t stopping. I watched it plow through the cement sign, over a sidewalk, onto the four-lane highway, over another curb and sidewalk, up a hill, through bushes and small trees and finally into a brick building before flipping over … twice. The car was still running and the wheels were turning at a rapid pace. Emergency teams arrived immediately at the scene; many onlookers had already called 9-1-1. The firemen had to get into my car to stop the engine. The gas pedal had a mind of its own.
After I made it across the highway, both gracious that no one was in it’s path and fearful that people were in that office and in the line of fire, we all sat I the waiting area as I was covered in blankets and questioned by officers and firemen. I left my car to go to the hospital and was blessed beyond belief that nothing was broken in my jump and especially after a run-over arm. What did creep up on me in the aftermath, however, was a continuous battle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. That day I didn’t just lose control of my car, but I lost trust in something that was responsible for getting me safely from point A to point B. I had nightmares for months and those months turned into years. Often, I’d find myself waking up and still pressing those breaks; I couldn’t stop the car in my dreams.
When pressed for answers, Ford unsympathetically said my Escape model had a recall, where the brakes got entangled with the cruise control. It was a recall that I was supposedly informed of (I was never made aware of it) and something that should have been fixed on a maintenance check up. I found receipts and saw a recall listed on a recent maintenance check-up, they said they fixed the problem. They lied.
I found myself Googling the scenario for weeks on end. In 2007, this same situation with Ford vehicles had taken the lives of thirty-six drivers. This doesn’t even include the families and loved ones in the car with them. I was one of the only ones, if not the only one, who survived. Some victims called 9-1-1 and I heard the tapes; “It won’t stop, it won’t stop!! We’re approaching a cliff. Kids hold on. Pray. We’re going over …” Another story involved a mother and her teenage daughter. Brakes no option, the car slammed into a boulder, killing them in an instant and becoming a fireball of a mess. No one taught any of us how to deal with this emergency in Drivers’ Education classes, so some people saw that this was how their stories would end. Those people didn’t deserve to cut their stories short so many chapters early.
Shortly after all of my research and heartbreaking findings, I learned that Ford had many recalls throughout the years on their models. How did they deal with these situations, when the victims suffered death as a consequence? They paid enough money to make sure the families didn’t speak up again, let alone in court.
I began months of therapy in order to try and cope with this situation. The therapy wasn’t worth the time and commitment and didn’t help me mentally. I called Ford, I had my insurance agent back me up, I threatened lawsuits. It wasn’t fair that I would live my life in fear of this ever happening again. Even when I’m a passenger, a car ride doesn’t pass where the thought of the same thing happening doesn’t pass through my mind. This is something that will never leave my mind and something I’m simply going to have to accept.
I see Ford Escapes on the road all the time and think to myself that those people have no idea what could happen to them. The payoff to shut up the families of those victims was a deadly move. Who knows how many more sufferers there would be? Ford would make sure that it was kept silent. And how many other car manufacturers were guilty of the same thing?
The terror that overwhelmed my Christmas in 2007 was one that makes for quite the story but it’s a story I wish I never had to tell in the first place. Car manufacturers are guilty of irresponsibility day in and day out but they use money to keep mouths shut. And the people we trust to fix the problems we bring our cars in for?
Who’s to say that they even address those issues before we drive away from that lot …