On February 22, a 49-year old woman accidentally drove into the path of an oncoming train. The tragic accident claimed her and five other peoples' lives, and while the exact reason why she drove into the path of the train isn't known, Mercedes-Benz automatic gearshift design is a suspect. Let's see why.
The accident happened when the woman, a mother of three named Ellen Brody, drove her 2011 ML350 to the railroad crossing in Westchester County, NY. There was a lot of traffic, and she inched close to the tracks, to the point where the railroad crossing guard arm came down and struck her rear window. Even so, she was still well clear of the tracks.
She exited the car to check on it, and then — and this is the part that makes no sense — she drove forward onto the tracks, into the path of the oncoming train.
Why? Based on witness accounts and normal logic, it would seem like she'd entered the car to reverse a bit to get out of the arm's way. So why did she go forward?
And that's where speculation about the Mercedes shifter comes in. Mercedes' drive-by-wire automatic uses a small, column-mounted shifter that has a neutral center default setting, and then pushes up to engage reverse, and down to engage drive. Brody had the car only a couple months, since December, and it's likely (though unconfirmed) that her previous vehicle had the traditional PRNDL-layout automatic shifter.
In a traditional automatic with the PRNDL layout, Reverse was one notch down from park. Brody was in a situation with some pressure on her — a rapidly approaching train — and it's certainly not hard to imagine a situation where muscle memory takes over, the arm pulls the lever down one notch, the foot hits the gas, and expects to go backwards.
The Benz layout, however, would have sent her forward. Which is exactly what happened. Also, even if you're unfamiliar with a PRNDL layout, Benz puts R up and D down, which is counter to how most people's brains map up and down of a hand lever in a car. It seems that down would feel more like pulling to the rear, and an up pull would feel more like a motion forward, the opposite of the Mercedes layout.
We're not totally sure what happened. But even the possibility of something like this happening brings up the issue as to what car controls should be regulated by law, and be standard in all cars. The old PRNDL layout, for example, was a legal requirement — car companies couldn't just mix those letters up to spell more fun words like LNDRP or anything like that, which is partially why it became such an ingrained muscle memory for so many people.
I've driven Mercedes cars with this gearshift, and it always takes me moment to think and adjust when I get in one. The push-button to park always takes a moment, and I usually have to look at the lever to remember which way is D and which is R. If this is, in fact the mistake that was made, I can totally see how it can happen.
I think some degree of standardization is not a bad idea here at all. The muscle memories we develop from driving is a good thing. That's why my left foot always knows to feel for a clutch, and my right knows, without looking, where the loud and brake pedals are. I don't think Mercedes would have compromised any of the character of their vehicle if they made the motions required to get into various gears match the ones we've all been using for years.
It's not just Mercedes — Lincoln's push-button shifter on the MKC caused my arm to flail for a ghost shifter that wasn't there almost every time I got into it, and I suspect that if I was on tracks with a train hurtling at me and I had to find reverse in a big hurry, I could be pretty screwed as well.
The last thing I want is for every car to be the same. If they were, I'd willingly drive in front of a train. But there's some basic, fundamental controls — like the ones that control which direction the car will go — that should likely be standardized across any car you're likely to end up in, so (likely) preventable tragedies like this one don't have to happen again.
If there's a genuinely compelling reason for the Mercedes shifter mixing up the directions, I'm happy to hear it. But even if there's a decent potential for accidents like this to happen, I can't really imagine what that reason would be.