If you have food allergies, dining out is always a risk. We had a close call our first night in Chicago on a family vacation last month.

After a long day of travel, we got settled into our hotel room and went down to one of the hotel restaurants for a late dinner. It was a Sunday evening, around 9:30, and while the front desk had assured us that the restaurant was open until 11, that turned out to only be half true. The restaurant entrance was blocked off, but the kitchen was serving the full menu to a shared seating area that you entered through the bar.

We’d been concerned about finding food for our not-quite-two-year-old son. Kids’ menus are awfully limited these days, and very heavy on cheese, which he can’t eat. Chicken nuggets are fine once in a while, but only go so far on a ten-day trip. So we were pleasantly surprised to see a Sunbutter, jelly and banana sandwich on the kids’ menu. Because of my severe peanut allergy, we keep peanuts out of the house, so Katie goes to sunflower seed butter and almond butter for toast and sandwiches, and J loves it so much he’ll demand a taste if she’s eating it. Score!

After a very long wait, the waitress finally brought the sandwich, dropped it off saying, “Here’s your PBJ,” and left.

Wait, PBJ?

Katie tasted it, and it was in fact peanut butter.

Red alert mode engaged!

As I mentioned, I’m severely allergic to peanuts. We don’t know yet whether J is, but we didn’t want to risk finding out in a hotel in a strange city thousands of miles from home.

The waitress seemed a bit confused by the issue when we finally got her attention (all the while trying to find other things we could feed an increasingly-cranky toddler who thought he was finally going to eat), and we had to point out that yes, the menu specifically said Sunbutter.

They did take the sandwich off the bill, and replaced it with a plain jelly-and-banana sandwich. But it put us on alert for the rest of the week.

The really disturbing thing was that it wasn’t just any sunflower seed butter listed on the menu, but a specific brand, one whose purpose is to be a safe alternative for people who are allergic to peanuts. That’s like telling a diabetic that you have Clemmy’s sugar-free ice cream and handing them Ben and Jerry’s. Or giving someone Everclear to help with their dehydration.

We lucked out, because Katie caught it before J could eat any of it. Really, the restaurant dodged a bullet too: They could have served it to a family with a confirmed allergic child. Imagine how blindsided they’d be when someone silently replaced a peanut-free food with peanuts. Continue reading

I’ve driven a 2007-model Toyota Prius for two and a half years, so you can bet I’ve been following the news over the recalls and reports of uncontrolled acceleration. Monday’s runaway Prius incident, which involved a car that looks exactly like mine, has made me think even more about the problem.

Now, I’m not overly concerned, because the number of incidents is still small compared to the number of cars out on the road. And in the entire time I’ve been driving it, I can only think of two circumstances in which the car accelerated in a way I didn’t expect, both of them when driving on an incline:

  • The transmission has been kind of sluggish a couple of times when starting, causing a slight lurch once it switches gears.
  • Hitting an incline with cruise control. The car has to work harder to maintain the same speed, so it feels like it’s accelerating.

From what I’ve heard previously, the acceleration problems have had to do with malfunctioning cruise control, and I don’t really use cruise control anymore. (Not since I realized that it wasn’t a good fit for actual driving conditions.) Annoyingly, none of the articles I’ve read about James Sikes’ experience say whether he was using cruise control at the time or not.

They do say that he wore out the brakes, but refused to turn off the car or put it in neutral (as the 911 dispatcher advised him during the 23-minute call), and finally got it under control when a CHP officer had him apply both the regular and emergency brakes together.

So, what to do in this situation?

  • Brakes aren’t enough, but they’re a good start.
  • Turn off cruise control if it’s on. Some reports of cc-related problems have said that tapping the brakes didn’t disengage it as it’s supposed to, but manually disabling it did.
  • Putting it in neutral should cut off the engine from the wheels and still leave you steering. Sikes’ reason for not doing this when the dispatcher told him to — that he was afraid the car would flip — doesn’t make any sense to me.
  • Turning the car off locks the steering wheel, or at least turns off power steering. Not ideal for 90 MPH, so I understand Sikes’ reluctance here, but if the computer has essentially hung, push-and-hold for a hard shutdown might be the only thing you can do. I’d rather skid to a stop with minimal control than slam into a wall at 90.
  • The parking brake can double as an emergency brake. It might not stop you completely (it didn’t for Sikes), but it should help get the car under control again.

I don’t expect any trouble, just based on statistics, but at least now I have an idea of what to do if I ever do find myself in this situation.


Update (April 14): Toyota finally settled on a fix for the Prius stuck-accelerator pedal recall beyond “remove the floor mat”…five days after I took mine in to get the alignment and 30,000-mile maintenance done. (Also: After driving a Prius for 2.5 years, driving a normal car is weird!) (FB/T)

Update (April 15): Prius recall dealt with. Free fix, free rental, and choice of a $50 service coupon or $10 Starbucks card. Easy choice there. (T)

Update (July 16): A U.S. Department of Transportation investigation of Toyota crashes blamed on sudden acceleration has implicated driver error in nearly all cases. Of the 75 fatal crashes investigated, only one could be verified as a problem with the vehicle: the Lexus crash last August in which the accelerator was caught on the floor mat, leading to a recall. Of course, the court of popular opinion has already made up its mind. (#)

Update (February 2011): Even NASA engineers didn’t find any electronic problems causing sudden acceleration in Toyotas. It looks like the sticky pedals and floor pads were it. (#)

I’ve pulled in a few updates from my social media archives and from round-up posts I made here. It seemed the best way to consolidate the story into one place.

Forklift Driver Klaus (a.k.a. Staplerfahrer Klaus)- a parody of work safety films in which a forklift driver blunders through his first day on the job, maiming fellow employees left and right. German with English subtitles. (via TV Tropes: Scare Em Straight)

And, on a more serious note, the Internet Storm Center is reporting on people finding malware pre-installed on digital picture frames, memory cards, etc. Something to watch out for with portable devices that can connect to your computer.