How To Stop A Runaway Car

January 27, 2010

Toyota's ride to the top of the sales charts has struck a serious speed bump.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that some Toyota and Lexus vehicles can  unexpectedly accelerate when their throttles stick open.

Toyotas aren't the only cars that might run away, in the hands of a less experienced driver.  Nonetheless, the scope of Toyota's recall, and the fact that many Toyotas don't have "fail-safe" brakes or "smart throttles" raise safety concerns.

New action separate from floor mat recall

Last fall, Toyota warned that unsecured floor mats jammed accelerator pedals.  The NHTSA, however, said the incidents it investigated revealed additional problems.  Later, Toyota announced it would reshape gas pedals and add a brake override system to certain vehicles.

Toyota now says that throttle pedals might stick under rare conditions, under this separate recall.  This confirms the NHTSA's concerns.  Other factors that compound the problem and could lead to more accidents: the company's widespread use of keyless push-button ignitions that require you to hold the button for at least three seconds before the engine shuts off, and difficulty stopping when only pressing on the brakes.

At a Chicago automotive press event, I asked Nissan's Brian Brockman about smart pedals.  He says that most new Nissan and Infiniti cars have them.  Furthermore, German brands such as Mercedes and VW have effective fail-safe brakes.

Expect a federal mandate for industry-wide use of smart pedals.  Since "drive-by-wire" throttles are common, this makes sense.

How to stop a runaway car

Until all cars have them, you should know how to stop a "runaway" car. One of my first driving experiences involved a gas pedal that didn't release.  The "floating" gas pedal stuck under a misplaced floor mat.  Since this was a stick-shift car with manual steering and no steering wheel interlock, my father quickly grabbed the keys and shut the engine off.  He prevented push rods flying through our Ford Country Sedan's hood and taught a valuable lesson.

Automotive engineers say follow these steps if you're involved in a case of unexpected acceleration:

1.  Press the brake pedal down.  Do not pump; you'll lose power assist.

2.  Shift into neutral.  Practice this in a safe location; finding neutral might be difficult.

3.  Use the brakes to bring the vehicle to a stop on the roadside.

4.  Shut off the engine.

5.  Shift into park.

Get the latest on the Toyota safety recall at TheCarConnection

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