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AskTog, October 2004

Anatomy of a Panic: A Case Study

This is the true story of a panic that started in an instant and continued to play out for more than 18 hours, resulting in damage, destruction, and near-death.

Last month, I talked about The Worst Interface Ever, involving an after-market pump and switch for the Lexus RX-300, designed by and for engineers. The switch is not only located at a random and undocumented location and position, hidden in the engine compartment, but must be switched accurately every time the car is connected to or removed from the RV towing it. A single error carries a price tag of $5000.

I had such a pump and switch installed on my RX-300 in September, 1993. I was, to put it mildly, shocked when the installer showed me this tiny mechanical switch along a cross bar leading to the radiator and explained what I had to do with it and what would happen if I failed to do so. Nonetheless, with $1500 already invested in this project, I wasn’t about to spend another few hundred getting the thing removed, so I made the decision to be very, very careful.

My actions were perfect for a full four hours, at which point I was driving down the freeway when all the warning lights started coming on. I’d been practicing hooking up and removing the car from our new motorhome and, in spite of my best efforts, on the last go-round, I’d failed to flip the switch.

That time, I was lucky. I flipped the switch, and the problem went away. I then decided to be very, very, very careful, and for the next three months, things went OK, until that fateful night in Montana.


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A wrong turn was made. There seems to be some confusion as to who was at fault. It may have been me. It may have been my wife, Julie. Both of us lean toward blaming the dog. Whoever’s fault it was, we found themselves, just as the sun disappeared, inching down a dirt road in the middle of the Montana countryside, deep in private militia country. Oh, well, the road was bound to join up with a real road eventually...

Wrong! The road ended up at a ranch house protected by a large, loud dog. We stopped the motorhome before actually entering the driveway of the ranch house, but there was no way to turn around. We were going to have to back away, something you don’t casually do in a motorhome when towing a car. No, you first have to remove the car.

Julie and I quickly exited the motorhome and headed for the tow car. Each of us had our assigned duties: I was to pull the safety pins on the tow bar frame on the front of the car; she was to remove the special key we used only for towing because it would unlock the steering wheel but not start the car. She would then insert the real key, start the engine, then turn the wheel and gently rock the car back and forth until I could pull loose the large locking pins on the tow bar. Julie would then back the car away so I could stow the tow bar.

We both knew our jobs, and we both started working really fast. We got even faster when we saw the guy come out of the ranch house with the rifle. We went right down through our mental checklists and had that car separated and ready to go in less than one minute.

The rifleman turned out to be quite a decent guy, and let Julie pull the motorhome forward into his yard to turn around. At that point, I started driving our car out toward the highway, while Julie followed in the motorhome.

We were barely back on the paved road when all the warning lights came on and the transmission “slipped a notch.” (Yeah, not too descriptive, but if it ever happens to you, you'll know exactly what I mean.) I immediately stopped and checked the switch. Sure enough, it was in the wrong position.

Panic & Old Learning

What went wrong? My wife and I reverted to their old procedure when we became frightened by sight of the gun. The only difference between what we had done before getting the pump and what we were doing now was flipping the aftermarket switch. Under pressure, we reverted to a well-honed habit, and the damage was done.

Reverting to old learning under pressure is a well-understood principle. It is similarly illustrated by a story regarding a fighter plane that came out in the 1960s. It had a tendency to eject the pilot whenever anything went wrong. The engineers were tearing their hair out, because there didn’t seem to be any pattern to the ejections. It didn’t matter whether the hydraulics failed or an engine flamed out, or the ailerons lost control, within about two seconds, the pilot was shot out of the plane.

Mystery solved: When they looked back over the ejected pilots’ flying histories, they noted they all had one thing in common. They had all migrated to this aircraft from the same former aircraft. The two aircraft's controls were almost identical except for one important difference: The throttle and ejection seat handle positions had been switched. The pilots flew the new aircraft with no difficulty until an emergency arose, at which point they reverted to old behavior and blew their butts out of the plane. My wife and I should consider ourselves lucky.

Slow–Motion Panic

Our adventure, as it turned out, was only starting. What happened next is illustrative of how panic, once begun, can continue to play itself out over time, even after the original stimulus has been removed.

The next day, 50 miles away, we pulled into a large parking lot at the edge of Deadwood, SD. As I began disconnecting the tow bar, Julie started the car, at which point, parts of the transmission exited the bottom of the transmission with a loud bang, and a flood of transmission fluid began to form under the car.

Different people react to transmission-failure panic in different ways. Julie had immediately disappeared into the bathroom in the motorhome. leaving me with a do-it-yourself car-kit there in the parking lot.

I was in a quandary. We were in a public parking lot with a broken car and a spreading oil slick. There was no one around to tell about the problem, and I was certainly ill-equipped to clean it up. I decided to do the only reasonable thing, particularly if sitting in a town called DEADwood: I decided to make a get-away.

I, choosing "flight" from my “flight and fight” options, locked the car, hopped into the motorhome, and started pulling out.

The motorhome felt funny. It was kind of lumping across the parking lot, even though the lot was reasonably well paved. I stopped the motorhome, hopped out, and walked back to the car. The car had laid down a trail of rubber behind it. It appears I had failed to replace the tow key and unlock the steering column. The car was being literally dragged across the parking lot with the wheels in a left-hand-turn position.

I headed the car toward Rapid City, South Dakota, hoping they would either have a Lexus dealer or a Toyota dealer (Toyota makes Lexus). I drove, eyes fixed straight ahead, for around an hour, waiting patiently for Julie to exit the bathroom so I could have her call ahead and find a dealer.

When I was about 20 minutes from Rapid City, I decided to go back and find out what was wrong with my wife. I pulled over to the side of the freeway and snapped on the parking air brake. The freeway was really level, with grass on the center section and a broad grass area as wide as the freeway itself on my side, with just a gentle slope down. I didn’t drive onto the grass, of course—a 30,000 pound motorhome is not exactly a SUV. Instead, I popped the brake while on the soft shoulder, unsnapped my seat belt and went back to the bathroom.

Julie wasn’t in the bathroom. Julie was in bed, asleep. I was less than thrilled with this at the time. In fact, I couldn’t believe it. Here I was biting my nails to the quick waiting for her to come up and find out where I should be driving, and she was asleep!

Her reaction was also one of flight—to sleep—and such a reaction is just as reasonable—or unreasonable—as the sorts of weird reactions I was experiencing, reactions that seemed to get weirder and weirder:

When I saw my wife in bed asleep, I felt as though the whole world were moving around. It seemed almost mystical, some ethereal throwback to the ‘60s, until I looked out the window and realized the whole world really was moving around! I'd pulled the lever, but hadn't quite popped the brakes, and I had also failed to move the transmission to neutral, something I never forget because, after six or seven minutes, the transmission on the motorhome can fail. And that costs a whole bunch more than $5000.

Yeah, but never mind the money. At this point, the entire motorhome, tow car and all, was off on an adventure all by itself.

It scared the hell out of me. I was 30 feet away from the driver’s seat, and the motorhome was driving all over the grass. It could pop onto the freeway, headed crosswise, at any moment. I don’t think I’ve ever moved so fast.

Once I was back in the driver’s seat, it got really embarrassing. At the far side of the grass area was a large RV dealership, and people were watching the crazy guy driving through the field with great interest. I had to maneuver the RV back onto the freeway, all the while trying to look like I had intended to check out its off-road capabilities. I also couldn’t slow down; if I had, they’d still be towing me out.

I got back on the road, shaken and stirred, but alive and uninjured. Julie was no longer asleep. In fact, she was wide, wide awake. She got on the cell phone and found the only Toyota dealer in town. (The nearest Lexus dealer was in Chicago.) They drove there with no further incident.

It was only after we arrived that I learned the full extent of my panic.

You’ll recall that the first thing I would do when disconnecting the car was to pull the safety pins that prevent the large locking pins from falling out. I had just finished that task when the transmission exploded. In the ensuing panic, I never looked back. When we got to the Toyota dealer, the safety pins were still out, and one locking pin had worked itself almost completely out, while the other was more than half-way out. A few more miles and the car would have torn free. Thank goodness I hadn’t disconnected the safety cables that hold onto the car if the tow bar breaks. I could have killed someone.

Stress Review

  1. Initial Panic, at the sight of the rifle, caused me to fail to flip transmission fluid switch.

  2. Transmission-explosion panic caused my wife to go to sleep and me to drive off with the wheels locked and the locking pins unlocked. Both of us totally abandoned our tried-and-true towing procedures.

  3. An hour later, I, having popping the emergency air brake hundreds of times before, was still suffering sufficient psychological stress to leave the driver's seat of the motorhome after not pulling hard enough to actually lock the brake on and with the transmission in Drive. The motorhome, not realizing the problem, drove off without me at the wheel.

None of the events that caused the panic were in any sense life-threatening. They were disturbing, yes. We faced possible high expense in changing the engine/transmission unit, and we faced embarrassment at being found flooding a parking lot with transmission fluid and miscellaneous parts. Both of these pale in comparison to the subsequent risk to our own and other’s lives by allowing our motorhome to run away with us in it, and our car to all but become disconnected.

I'm embarrassed by what happened, although the fact is that panic is far more common than most people imagine. To read how it affects everyone from pilots to Presidents, read the companion article, Panic! How it Works and What To Do About It

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