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Driverless Fatalities Defy Odds

Experts are puzzled by three recent O.C. accidents in which cars have killed their owners.

October 24, 2003|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

Dozens of people are killed every day after being hit by cars -- but rarely by their own.

So the fact that three people in Orange County have been killed in the last seven weeks after they were pinned by their own vehicles puzzles experts, who say such accidents are so infrequent that their numbers aren't even tracked.

On Wednesday, a 50-year-old man died after he was run over twice by his 1987 Jaguar, which witnesses said was circling in reverse in a Brea parking lot. Quoc Nguyen of Pomona was chasing the car when it hit him.

"We can only speculate that he stopped, left the motor running and assumed that he had put it in park and that it slipped into reverse," said Brea Police Lt. Martin Needham. "It's the first case of its kind I've ever seen -- and I've been a cop for 25 years."

Last month, two people were killed when their driverless cars suddenly rolled backward. A 67-year-old woman was crushed against a cinder-block wall in Laguna Beach after trying to stop her BMW 328 from rolling.

And in Newport Beach, a 44-year-old woman was caught under the left front wheel of her Honda Accord when she tried to stop the car from rolling backward.

"It's not real common," said Dan Vomhof, a San Diego accident reconstruction expert. "When it does happen, it's most frequently the result of human error."

The most common errors: Someone parks on a slope and forgets to set the emergency brake on a car with a manual transmission or leaves an automatic transmission in neutral.

Under normal circumstances, "there's no way an automatic transmission can just slip into gear," Vomhof said.

But, he added, it is also theoretically possible -- depending on how much wear there is on the transmission.

"It's very uncommon to be run over by your own car, especially with all of the safeguards that are in cars nowadays," added Mallie Donohoe, a Glendora accident reconstructionist.

In the 1970s, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigated complaints that the automatic transmissions on certain Fords unexpectedly slipped from park into reverse, causing numerous injuries and deaths.

The government didn't order a recall, and a federal lawsuit against Ford was dismissed.

Though these kind of rare accidents often leave authorities with questions unanswered, there's one piece of advice investigators agree on:

Don't get in the way of a moving vehicle that has no one behind the wheel. "That's not a smart move," Needham said.

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