Posted by: Jerry Garrett | January 30, 2010

How to Stop a Runaway Toyota (or any other car)

Your car suddenly accelerates, even though your foot’s not on the accelerator pedal. What do you do?

  1. Shift into neutral. Once you do that, if the engine’s power can no longer drive the wheels, it doesn’t matter what the accelerator does, right? Next, you can worry about getting it stopped.
  2. Brake hard. Push the pedal down hard, and don’t let up until the car stops. Don’t pump the brakes; you’ll lose pedal pressure. (This assumes your car, like the ones in the recent Toyota recalls for sticking accelerators, has anti-lock brakes. Older cars, without ABS, you actually DO have to pump the brakes to keep them from locking the wheels in a skid.)
  3. Yank your emergency (hand) brake. Or stomp on your parking brake pedal. Remember your car has not one, but two braking systems. Be prepared to use both, if need be.

What if your brakes fail? Here’s another good opportunity to use the emergency brake. The systems aren’t linked, so if one fails, the other should still be working. (Parking brakes are poor substitutes for emergency brakes, IMHO.)

Okay, what if neither of your braking systems is giving you the stopping power you need? As a last resort, you can turn off the ignition. But have your transmission in gear.  Turning off the ignition with the transmission in neutral – think about this! – isn’t going to stop your car, is it? Something else has to, and if it is not going to be the brakes – because in this hypothetical situation your brakes aren’t working either, right? – something else has to. And your transmission gears are the only friend you have left.

This is how I once stopped a runaway school bus, which had lost its hydraulic brake system, while I was driving it down a mountain road. I turned the ignition off, with the transmission in gear. The transmission didn’t like it very much, but the wheels clanked to a stop and dragged the tires until the bus stopped.

Remember, when the ignition is off, your power systems are off – no power brakes, no power steering! Your steering wheel will probably lock too, unless you have the presence of mind to subsequently turn the key back to the “on” position. (Don’t re-engage the starter!) Turning your ignition off to stop the car has to be considered pretty much a last resort.

What do race car drivers do, when they experience a sticking throttle, brake failure or any other sort of catastrophic mechanical malfunction, at high speeds?

They will spin the car. You do this by cranking the steering wheel all the way to the left or right, and holding it there, while stomping the brakes. This is a scary technique that most drivers won’t have the skill, experience or nerve to try. But it will bring the car to a stop, fairly quickly, and in a generally predictable location.

I suggest anyone interested in learning this technique sign up for a high performance driving school to learn how to do it. (Another one of those “Don’t try this at home” deals.)

Independent of high performance driving school, you can teach yourself how to stop your own car in an emergency. How? By developing a “panic” sequence that you can teach yourself.

The so-called “panic stop” was a pass-fail skill in the old British driving test; I don’t know if it is anymore, but it should be.  Without warning, sometime during the road test portion of your license exam, the instructor driving with you would yell, “Stop”. And it was up to you to bring the car to a stop as quickly as possible. I developed a sequence where I would tromp the foot brake, yank the hand brake, and while leaving the car in gear, turn the ignition off. All in about two seconds.

How did it work? The car stopped so fast, the instructor lost his clipboard, he lurched forward in his seat, and his head hit the (padded) dash. But I passed my test. “Impressive,” he said, re-composing himself.

Before you go anywhere in a car, you should know and rehearse how you are going to stop it.

Jerry Garrett

January 30, 2010

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