Was Anton Yelchin killed by a freak accident or a design flaw?

jeep shifter
© Jeep shifter

Anton Yelchin was a rising star, terrific as Chekov in the Star Trek reboot and well regarded in his work. If you read the headlines, he died the other day in a “freak accident.” We have written a number of times about the problem with the word accident; it implies that it couldn’t be helped, that it just happened. That’s why we write crash not accident every time it is used, complaining that when pedestrians and cyclists are killed, it is not an unavoidable accident but something that could have been prevented with slower speed limits and better design.

Anton YelchinAnton Yelchin in Star Trek/Screen capture

It turns out that Anton Yelchin didn’t die in a “freak accident” either, but probably as a result of a design decision. His car, a Jeep, was under a recall order because of a problem with the gear shift: as Core77 notes,

Yelchin was found crushed between his car, a 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee, and the security gate at the end of his driveway. It appears that Yelchin had exited his car and walked behind it, perhaps to close the gate, and apparently believed the transmission was in "Park." Instead it appears it was actually in "Reverse" or "Neutral" and the car rolled down his steep driveway, killing him.

Rain Noe of Core77 continues with a discussion of the video (which I suspect will be pulled by Jeep very soon, judging by comments on it) showing how the gear shift works and concludes:

Are you kidding me? As you can see in the video, the shifter automatically returns to the center position after each change is made. The driver must check the letters atop the shifter or on the dashboard to see what gear it's in. In contrast, the more traditional automatic shifter design is to move the lever to a particular angle, where it remains. Remaining in the position where you last manipulated it to is, we think, a better design for enforcing in the user's mind what gear you're in.

The word “accident” is used to let people off the hook. “freak” as an adjective before it makes it even worse. But this was not an accident; it was probably the result of a recognized design flaw. There were no significant benefits to the new design and the visual and tactile cues that the car was actually in park were gone.

powerflite© Chrysler ad for powerflite transmission

This is also not a new phenomenon; car makers learned years ago that standardizing the way things work saves lives. In the sixties, the Chevrolet Corvair changed the way the gear shift pattern worked and the cars often rolled away because the parking brake was not engaged. Chrysler experimented with push-button transmissions that caused many crashes. (my Grandmother totalled her Plymouth by hitting the wrong one). They soon realized that perhaps this was a mistake. As one lawyer notes while complaining about recent designs (not including the Jeep)

In short, this vast and extreme proliferation of designs and methods of functionality confused drivers, caused mistakes and catastrophic injuries, and lead to the standardization of systems that motorists have enjoyed and benefited from up until recently.

So why is this on TreeHugger? Because it is another example of how design matters; people are used to acting in a certain way and if you confuse them, it can lead to problems. It's an example of how words matter; these things rarely "just happen" but are the result of decisions, choices and priorities. If we get our priorities right, people don’t die as often. "Accidents" are really rare; most are the inevitable consequence of bad choices and bad design.

Tags: Designers | Transportation


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