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Unless you’re scanning the web for this kind of information, you’re probably not aware that on a fairly regular basis huge trucks with no driver inside the cab roll away from where they were parked. This usually happens because the driver neglected to engage the parking brake or because someone either purposely or inadvertently released it. The so-called rollaway accidents that result are often both costly and deadly. In April, a tractor trailer rolled across 10 lanes of expressway traffic in Columbus, GA and plowed through a store, causing $200,000 in damage. In 2006, an eight year-old girl was killed in New York City after being pinned on the sidewalk by a runaway school bus. Witnesses saw an eight year-old boy entering the empty bus prior to the tragic accident.

Now a mechanic with just a year of community college under his belt has unveiled a system to prevent rollaways. 44 year-old Tom Accardi (right) managed to create the system and bring it to market without the help of venture capitalists or companies that prey on aspiring inventors.

Accardi lives in the village of Yaphank, New York in the suburbs of Long Island. He spent close to six years working on his device, which sells for $2,500, and comes with a lifetime guarantee. A patent is pending.

Here’s how it works: less than two seconds after the driver has gotten out of the seat, a sensor in the seat sends a signal to the system’s controller box, which also receives data on the truck’s speed. If the controller detects motion of between 2 and 3 mph, it sends current to a solenoid that has been installed on the supply line to the air brake, cutting off the air. That, in turn, causes the parking brake to kick in.


Accardi parks a truck in the driveway of his home in Yaphank, opens the driver side door, releases the brake and the truck starts rolling in reverse. He sits in the driver seat for a moment with his legs hanging outside the cab, watching the truck roll down the driveway, then quickly climbs out of the moving truck. A second or so after his butt is off the seat, we hear the air brakes hiss and the truck stops rolling. In another segment of the video a truck with the anti-roll away system is seen rolling down a steep suburban street. Then Accardi opens the door and jumps out of the moving truck, which quickly brakes seconds after he is out of the driver’s seat. It’s dramatic stuff.

In the video Accardi makes reference to the personal injuries, deaths, property damage and resulting insurance claims from rollaway accidents and then declares: “The system we have is going to put an end to all of that.”

A self-taught mechanic who says he never had the money to go to mechanics school, Accardi has worked on trucks since he was 15 years old. He worked his way up from mechanic to administrator at Waste Management, the giant private carting firm. While he was there, Accardi says, he got weekly safety updates that indicated between two and five rollaway incidents took place almost every week. In one, a Waste Management employee was crushed to death between two trucks, causing Accardi to remark, “There’s no need for this to happen. I can make something to prevent this.”

When a colleague dared him to go ahead and try, Accardi spent the next two nights in his garage making a tabletop model of his anti-rollaway system. The Craftsman tractor he sat on as he mowed his lawn was something of an inspiration.

“Look at your standard garden tractor,” Accardi said in an interview. “They all have a seat switch so that if you get up out of your seat, it shuts the motor off.”

Which is why he pulled the seat off the lawnmower and attached it to a used beer delivery truck he bought for $5,000 solely for the purpose of perfecting his anti-rollaway system.

Accardi resisted the overtures of a firm that describes itself as America’s leading inventor service company. He says it wanted him to cough up $10,000 before it would help and took months to return one of his calls. He also spent many months doing a dance with venture capitalists, who he says “wanted almost the whole company. If I would have given every VC what they wanted, I’d be working for them for the rest of my life.”

Accardi says he had some promising meetings with the giant auto part manufacturer Delphi but there were personnel changes and no deal was reached. So he reluctantly decided to market the device himself. They key engineering challenge was an electronic one: programming some sort of controller with a microprocessor that would use inputs on the truck’s motion and absence of a driver to make the air brakes go on.

“Everybody wanted large amounts of money to do engineering before they got involved and did anything,” Accardi recalls.

Initially he was told there would be between $200,000 and $500,000 in engineering costs to launch the business. But eventually Accardi found a firm called Electro Motive Designs on Long Island. The firm does work turning garbage trucks and buses into hybrids, so Accardi’s project was right up their alley. Instead of a six figure tab for programming the controller box, Accardi paid Electro Motive Designs in the low five figures.

“They told me they would hack right into the truck’s computer, and then bing, bang, boom, they did everything we wanted,” Accardi recalls.”They had already done the hard work on their previous jobs.”

Dana Demeo, Electro Motive Designs’ VP of Engineering, says, “I was impressed with Tommy from the get go. He understood the problem and how to solve it.”

Demeo says Accardi can now connect the controller to his computer with a USB cable and program it on his own. Thus, the amount of time that the system allows before engaging the brakes can be varied. Because the box has flash memory, it can record incidents where the anti-rollaway system was activated and store the data for later download to a computer. Future programming and hardware tweaks would enable truck owners to get a GPS reading on exactly where such incidents took place and either email or text the data to management.

The 3″ X 4″ programmable controller box is about an inch thick and was purchased “off the shelf.” The controller can be installed in either a truck’s cab or under the hood, as long as it’s no more than four feet from the vehicle’s diagnostic port. Accardi says that installation takes between two and four hours and can be done by truck manufacturers, companies with a fleet of trucks or “anyone who can fool with air brakes.”

A volunteer fireman for more than 20 years, Accardi’s day job is supervisor of a waste transfer station. He is clearly proud that all but one part of his anti-rollaway system was manufactured in the US.

“It’s a great country,” he says. “I want everything made here.”

With a $2,500 price tag, the system may seem pricey for the prevention of accidents that are somewhat rare, but as HTK Engineering’s marketing director, Victor Yannacone III, points out, a rollaway accident can be quite costly for an insurance company: a single accident involving a fatality can result in millions of dollars of liability and injuries or property damage can cost hundreds of thousands. HTK expects insurance companies to offer premium reductions around 5% to 10% to truck owners who install its anti-rollaway system. For owners who shell out $20,000 to $30,000 a year for insurance, such savings would pay for the cost of the unit in two or three years.

Jon Kalish

Jon Kalish is a Manhattan-based radio reporter, podcast producer and newspaper writer. He’s reported for NPR for more than 30 years.


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Comments

  1. secretmanofagent says:

    Great idea, honestly surprised that no one has come up with it yet. The only concern I have is in which position the switch would be defaulted in. Usually, they’re normally closed in the event that safety is required, which allows for failures to be detected.

  2. Sean says:

    Great idea Tom. Best of luck with it.

  3. snowaviation says:

    Excellent invention.

  4. sk8sonh2o says:

    Please forward this article to your local FIRST robotics team. The students work with air, solenoids, programming and vehicular systems, with safety a primary concern. Posted by rookie team 4055 The Northwestern Robotics Gearheads, http://www.nrg4055.org . See you in St. Louis!

  5. Stephanie says:

    amazing Tommy!!! as is Lori We ALL are so Very Proud!!!

  6. Tez Fair says:

    I can see the benefits, BUT…

    why can’t the truck being in gear hold it from running away? surely drivers leave their manuals in gear?

    what happens when during normal operation the driver reaches over the grab something or stands up to have a scratch? I can see the system thinking its running away and whacks the brakes on

    I have a feeling that something like this exists on cars with their ‘auto handbrake’ system

    1. K!P says:

      It states in the video that the system deactivates when a certain speed is reached. So onece you going faster than (X) it wont slam on the brakes.

  7. Steeevyo says:

    What if somebody dies of a heart attack while behind the driver’s seat?
    Break wont work then.,
    Unlikely to happen?
    Happened to Helmut Newton the famous fashion photograper

    1. Lou says:

      That exact thing just happened in PA on Friday the 27th.

      Teen steers runaway school bus to safety after driver keels over in fatal heart attack blocking the brakes
      A driverless school bus traveling with over three dozen passengers was saved Tuesday when a 17-year-old took the wheel after its driver keeled over to a heart attack.

      Graceann Rumer, a senior at Calvary Christian Academy in Philadelphia had just started driving two weeks prior when she said she heard a loud noise and looked up to see her driver laying on the floor.

      ‘I just realized that there’s no one driving this bus, I need to do something,’ Graceann told NBC Philadelphia.

      According to the video, with the driver out of the seat the system would have stopped the bus.

    2. sk8sonh2o says:

      Not trying to solve that problem. No solution is going to cover every scenario. The inventor addressed a problem that kills 8 people a year, and has proposed a cost effective solution. If you want to add a heart monitor to it, and you think you can make and sell it to address a problem you perceive, godspeed.

  8. Peter den Bakker says:

    Off course it will be produced in the US, no one else is interested !
    Everyone else simply uses their handbrake or leave it in gear.

    1. Marc says:

      Yes, this is very true. Only Americans make mistakes.

      On a serious note, along with the great idea, I really appreciate the write-ups stress on the fact that home grown inventions are still possible.

      Best of luck to Mr Accardi and his venture.

  9. joe says:

    great system, though anything that has to do with vehicle safety is going to need to be tested like crazy before a system like this is implemented (what if scenarios, does it work 10,000 times in a row, etc). More power to him, I just hope he doesn’t end up going broke before it gets to market.

  10. Jack McDaniel says:

    This idea looks promising. We serm to buy prevention insurance for nearly everything else; so why not hedge against a catadtauphic event. About 8 years ago in Bristol CT an oil delivery man was crushed to death when his heating oil truck ran him over on a hilly driveway. Sad but true. Good luck to this clever entrepreneur.

  11. Jorsher says:

    I’m also surprised this hasn’t been done already.

    I hope he gets the success he deserves.

  12. Lou says:

    All of your cars and trucks made today have a brake/transmission interlock so a child can’t go in the vehicle and pull it out of gear causing a roll away, why don’t large trucks have some kind of protection.

    It looks like Mr. Accardi is talking about trucks with air brakes, most of these trucks have a P.T.O. to operate the accessories, think of an oil delivery truck, garbage truck, etc they all need to have the motor running when performing certain tasks. That’s where problem comes from, the driver forgetting to set the brake upon exiting the truck to deliver your oil, pick up trash, etc.

    Remember a couple years back when a driver left the school bus to go to the bathroom and it rolled away full of kids. If you think this stuff can’t happen your truly mistaken.

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  14. Israel DeGros says:

    Hey guys,

    I recently lost my Job because I feel faulty truck and company negligences. I need advice on this matter. I had two accidents. The first accidents was because I got caught underneath a over pass because the height of the truck was not posted on the truck. So my question is: Does the height sticker of the truck MUST be posted in or around the truck DOT Regulation? My second accident is: Does a Mack sanitation truck that has a digital shifter, is suppose to move after the airbrake is applied and the PTO is turned on? Also does the digital transmission shift into neutral after the airbrake is applied to prevent rollaway?

    I gladly appreciate your advice.

    1. Tom Accardi says:

      Sorry it took so long to reply;

      I don’t know if DOT requires the height of a vehicle to be marked, most companies do this on their own just for the reason you stated.
      However if it’s a roll off truck or similar it’s hard to mark the height since it changes depending on the size of the container on it Ex. 10yd box or 40yd.

      As for your second question, no truck should move once the parking brake is applied. This sometimes can happen though if the brakes are not adjusted properly.

      I haven’t seen an automatic truck yet that applies the parking brake when shifted into neutral, however our system can do that if required by the customer.

  15. andy.hollis@udg.co.uk says:

    This product is for trucks. As it says, the reason for a roll-a-way is the cab (front bit) park brake is not applied and not in gear. One reason for this is that the truck driver (semi driver) can be hooking up to his trailer (even on a slope). On connecting to the trailer (which has its parking break on so it won’t move), the driver leaves the cab (park break off and in neutral) and connects his airlines (electrical and brake air lines), this then makes the trailer act like the cab (no brakes) all that is saving it from moving is the trailer brake (normally on the side or can be on the front), the trailer brake button/handle is then pulled or pushed which then releases the brakes. This is when the rollaway occurs if the park brake is not applied and the cab is left in neutral.

    If the driver is on the back of the cab/semi unit and notices the whole thing rolling away for example, he would simply need to disconnect the airline and it would apply the air break.

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