Can unfamiliarity with a shifter-gear lever cause a tragedy?

Unusual transmission controls could increase risk of accidents

Published: February 18, 2015 11:00 AM

Flicking this Mercedes-Benz gear shifter down puts the SUV into drive.

Some car controls have become so perplexing that they might even be dangerous.

There’s been speculation that such confusion might have played a role when a Metro-North commuter train crashed into an SUV at a crossing in Valhalla, New York, on Feb. 3, 2015, killing the SUV driver and five train passengers. The National Transportation Safety Board investigation is still in its early stages and many questions remain unanswered, including how a late-model Mercedes-Benz SUV found itself trapped between the crossing gates with an express train bearing down on it.

While we don’t know what happened, two details that emerged from this tragedy caught our attention:

  • The driver of the 2011 Mercedes ML 350, Ellen Brody, 49, had just recently bought it, according to news accounts, and the NTSB confirms it was registered in Dec. 2014.
  • Stuck between the crossing gates with a train approaching, and with the first gate lowered against her back window, Brody “suddenly pulled forward and as she did so, the train struck the car,” said NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt, summarizing an eyewitness account. In other words, she pulled farther into the path of the train instead of backing up.

We don’t know exactly what happened in that crash, but one thing we do understand is that newer models from Mercedes and several other automakers have an electronic shift lever that can be confusing to use. With a conventional column shifter, for instance, Reverse is traditionally one notch down from Park. But in newer Mercedes vehicles, flicking the electronic column shifter downward engages Drive instead. Reverse is found by flicking the lever upwards.

Check our guide to car safety.

“If someone isn’t familiar with one of these systems, they could do exactly the wrong thing in an emergency,” says Jake Fisher, director of auto testing for Consumer Reports. “I’ve found myself tripped up by electronic shift levers more than once.”

In our last ML 350 road test, we wrote, “Selecting Reverse seems unintuitive, Park is engaged with a separate button on the lever's tip, and it is way too easy to mistake the small shift lever for a wiper stalk and shift the car into Neutral.”

We've been complaining about these Mercedes shifters since the design was introduced more than 10 years ago. The problem isn't limited to Mercedes, however. Plenty of newer cars now have unconventional shift patterns, including BMWs, the Acura TLX V6, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, and the Toyota Prius.

”There’s nothing inherently wrong with new technology for shifters—so long as it is intuitive," says Fisher. "You shouldn't need a lesson on how to shift your car into gear. The same goes for anyone who drives your car, like family or friends. Controls need to be designed so that the driver can easily do the right thing in a panic situation." 

Gordon Hard    

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