Our cars are conspiring to kill us with technology

Minnesota Department of Public Safety

Who knows what we would have done in the situation Michael Johannes, 51, of Minneapolis was in Sunday evening when his Chevy Trailblazer caught on fire?

It took the superhuman strength of Bob Renning, 52, of Woodbury to get him out of the burning vehicle, by bending the locked door.

It’s an amazing story, of course, that leaves out an answer to an important question: Why couldn’t Johannes get out?

“He was kicking and beating the window trying to break it open from the inside,” Renning told the Pioneer Press.

It’s every driver’s worse nightmare. An electrical system that’s kaput, keeping the power windows from working and neutering the little button that unlocks the car. Fact is: We think about these scenarios only when we’re on long highways with nothing else to do but wonder what we’d do if our electric-dependent car drove into the water with the windows up.

In the old days, of course, it was an easy answer: Crank the windows down. But windows don’t have cranks anymore.

And in another discussion a few weeks ago on Twitter, I forgot that vehicles — most vehicles, anyway — have a manual latch to unlock doors in the event of an electrical failure. Haven’t used it in years, haven’t thought about it, and with flames seconds away from killing you, it’s an easy oversight in the panic of the moment. And I’ve owned the car for 12 years.

A few weeks ago, I was momentarily frustrated when the battery died on the push-button door-unlock on my key chain. How would I get into my car? It’d been years since I used a key in a car’s door.

In the Chevy Trailblazer’s owners manual, six pages are dedicated to the automatic locks (shift into drive and the doors automatically lock, a nice feature that almost killed Mr. Johannes). One paragraph describes how to unlock the door when the power goes out.

Granted, it’s a General Motors vehicle so there’s a fair chance the thing that’s supposed to work didn’t work, but it’s also possible that Mr. Johannes was unfamiliar with the SUV, since he’d only bought it a week ago.

Our cars’ conveniences conspire to kill us. That’s why today I’m going to swing by the hardware store and buy a new option: a hammer to break windows if I need to get out of a burning vehicle. Because Bob Renning might not be around when I need him.

  • KTN

    You can always have your mechanic bypass the auto lock function with a Tech II, or you can have a hammer.
    All cars have manual means for locking and unlocking a door, it’s a mandated thing – that you are unable to figure out this very simple device is then on the owner – maybe become familiar with your car, you know, read the manual, experiment with those complex mechanisms that control whether your door opens, closes and locks.

  • MrE85

    Get another hammer for the plane, too. Those homebuilt jobs are deathtraps! 😉

    • I was thinking about that while writing this and, actually, — and don’t tell KARE 11 this because it’ll ruin their already uninformed reporting on the subject — this is one area where aviators have the safety advantage over the car-driving population. they are CONSTANTLY evaluating scenarios like this and trying to get “muscle memory” to act in spite of the obvious panic.

      At Oshkosh last year, I stopped in at a seminar on getting out of an airplane that has ditched in water which included the revelation that (a) you’ll be upside down hanging from a seat belt and (b) it’ll be dark and (c) you’ll be close to drowning.

      Same thing with fire. When a plane makes an emergency landing, there’s a good chance it’ll flip upside down, preventing the canopy from opening, with the two gas tanks now dripping fuel on you.

      Guess where the hammer idea came from?

  • Gary F

    And that Ford Sync system that is supposed to make things safer with “hands free” technology…

    Well if you see a person in their car cursing loudly, and it’s a newer Ford, their hands may be on the wheel, but their blood pressure is double what it is supposed to be.

  • Matt

    The first thing I thought when I read this is that Mythbusters episodes (two) about getting out of a car that has gone into water. In the first episode, the car is lowered into a pool. Adam, who drew the short straw, is able to get out and can think clearly despite the impending flooding of the cabin. Viewers wrote in, noting that most cars that go into water flip over, and that they needed to do the experiment today. They did, and Adam’s disorientation upon re-do was apparent. People die in cars that go into water because they are incapable of getting their seatbelt off or unlocking the door. In a fire in this victim’s situation, I can’t imagine trying to think clearly enough to know about/read about/find the mechanical release.

  • Tyler

    You can buy multitools on the internet that cut seatbelts AND break windows. I’m guessing the only thing it can’t do is get a cassette out of the player in the dash…

    • MrE85

      They sell them at my local Ace Hardware store, too.

    • jon

      Who still has a cassette player?

      My wife has one of these in her car:

      I just always carry a gerber multi-tool, comes in handy for the screw drivers and pliers more often than not.

      Problem with either loose in a car is that they they tend to become projectiles in a crash, and you are unable to find them, best to velcro or strap them in place some where that you can reach with limited movement (i.e. get to with either hand while sitting straight back in your seat as though the seat belt has a death grip on your body) for me that’s my belt.

      Having been sideways in a pickup truck and found myself wondering how to get the seat belt that was now the only thing holding me up off… it is something that takes a bit of thought after the rolling is stopped… I managed to get loose, and then standing on the passenger door pushed the driver side door open… (it’s heavy when you are lifting the whole thing up… and it doesn’t stay open on it’s own) I don’t remember crawling off of the truck, probably not something that was worth committing to memory, but it wasn’t exactly an easy escape. Had I needed to cut the seat belt and break glass to get out anything floating loos in the cab would have been on the passenger window out of my reach, important to have the tool, and put it someplace that it will stay despite unexpected orientations of the car, and be able to reach it when you need it.

  • CL

    Our son was in an accident on a Cal. freeway. His airbag deployed and he was disoriented. He has no memory of it at all. His front seat passenger desperately tried to get both of them out of the car, as the seatbelts locked. If not for a bystander who had a seatbelt cutter and some sort of window breaker, both my son and his friend would have been killed in the car fire that happened only minutes later. Reading the owner’s manual wouldn’t have helped them.

  • CHS

    Since there are theoretically less hooligans reading Bob’s posts…. I’ll share this tidbit. If you ever have need of quickly and easily breaking a side or rear window on a vehicle to get someone out, you can use the antenna: Break it off and give it a good slap against the window, it will shatter. More likely you can’t break it off quickly, just bend it around to the nearest window, press it flat then pull it back and let the tip snap against the window. It might take a few tries to find the right amount of length. ONLY WORKS ON TEMPERED GLASS. (side and rear)

    The old boys at the Fire Dept. loved that one before they started carrying more tools than a plumber.

    • knut

      A lot of cars don’t have external antennas any longer. They are integrated into the car (e.g. the back window)

  • Dave

    So this is not really a story about car tech killing us. It’s that some people have become complacent with door-locking convenience that they forget that every car has a manual lever.

    “I was momentarily frustrated when the battery died on the push-button door-unlock on my key chain. How would I get into my car? It’d been years since I used a key in a car’s door.”


    • Yes, seriously. It’s how we interface with technology and how it affects human behavior. We forget things when we become dependent. Throw a rotary telephone in front of a teenager and see if they can make a call.

      also throw in a panic situation in which your car is enveloped in flames and it’s only a matter of seconds before you’re dead and see if things are as simple as you think.

      If only we were robots.

      • Dave

        There is not a teenager on the planet that couldn’t figure out a rotary phone in under ten seconds. Just because they’ve never seen it doesn’t mean they couldn’t learn it.

        • Dave

          They still make these things by the way:


          There is one at my grandma’s house that my three-year-old loves to “dial.”

        • Oh, fine, Starquest, I’ll indulge you. Let’s just go with making change, then.

      • Dave

        I agree with the panic factor. Luckily these situations are rare.

      • Jack

        I’d like to see a federal mandate that safety features work the same way in all vehicles. We had to pull out the owner’s manual for the rental car to see how to turn on the lights. Manual locks- we stumbled upon the unlock purely by accident after a day of looking for it on the door – it was on the dash.