Magazine article The New Yorker

The Talk of the Town: Free Lizzie!

Magazine article The New Yorker

The Talk of the Town: Free Lizzie!

Article excerpt

In the early morning of July 7th, the thirty-year-old publicist Lizzie Grubman backed her father's brand-new Mercedes-Benz S.U.V. into a crowd outside a Southampton night club, injuring sixteen people. Shortly before the incident, Grubman had had a loud argument with the night club's bouncers, one of whom wanted her to move her car from the fire lane. She allegedly told him, "Fuck you, white trash," and then hit the accelerator hard.To the tabloids, the event has been irresistible--Grubman's father is a famous entertainment lawyer; she is a bottle blonde; she represents Britney Spears--and for the past two weeks the city has been full of gleeful philosophizing about entitlement, arrogance, and the perils of spoiled rich kids getting angry behind the wheel of Daddy's S.U.V. But what, exactly, happened in the Mercedes that night? As it turns out, Grubman's argument that it was an accident has foundation. She appears to have been the victim of a well-understood problem known as "unintended acceleration," or "pedal error."

This does not mean, as some have surmised, that Grubman put the car in reverse, thinking that it was in drive. If that was the case, why didn't she just hit the brake as she sped backward across the parking lot? Pedal error, by contrast, occurs when a driver has her right foot on what she thinks is the brake but is actually the accelerator. When the car begins to move, the driver responds by pressing down on the pedal further still, in an attempt to stop the car. But that, of course, only makes the problem worse.

Why do people make pedal errors? In a comprehensive analysis of the phenomenon that appeared in the June, 1989, issue of the journal Human Factors, the U.C.L.A. psychologist Richard A. Schmidt argues that any number of relatively innocent factors can cause a "low-level variability in the foot trajectory toward the brake"--meaning that a driver aims for the brake and misses. In "Unintended Acceleration: A Review of Human Factors Contributions," Schmidt writes, "If the head is turned to the left, as it might be while looking in the left side mirror, reaching for the seatbelt, or other, similar maneuvers in the initiation of the driving sequence, the result could be systematic biases to the right in the perceived position of the brake pedal. …

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