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Advice to drivers of runaway cars: Shift into neutral

I thought that this message was implicit in all the coverage I -- and many others -- have written about Toyota and its runaway acceleration issue. But I've received enough e-mails from enough readers to convince me that it's worthwhile for me and others to say this:

If you are driving and your accelerator sticks, or mashes itself to the floor, or gets stuck under the floor mat or in any way gets out of your control: SHIFT YOUR CAR INTO NEUTRAL. Then steer and use your brakes responsibly to pull out of traffic and to a stop on the side of the road.

It turns out that many people have never used any gear except forward and reverse, never having had occasion to use neutral. But it's there and it works on all vehicles. In the simplest possible terms, shifting your car into neutral disconnects the engine from the wheels. If your vehicle is in neutral, the gas pedal can stay stuck to the floor until the gas tank is empty and your vehicle will not move.

I've never owned a vehicle that had an automatic transmission. I'm a stickshift guy from way back. I prefer the control it gives you when driving, I enjoy the fun of downshifting into curves and really, you know, driving.

But here's what I like most about driving a stickshift: It constantly reminds you that you are the only person in charge of a two-ton rolling murder weapon, not to put too fine a point on it.

Automatic transmissions -- combined with ultra-smooth-riding suspensions, interior amenities such as great-sounding satellite radio and endless driver distractions (cellphones, GPS, kids and so on) -- can really make you forget the serious and potentially terrible responsibility you bear every time you pull into traffic.

But even automatic transmissions have a neutral. Find it. Learn it. Love it. And, if your car starts running away from you, do the right thing and shift into neutral.

Below is a good video from auto research firm Edmunds.com in which a test driver gets behind the wheel of a second-generation Prius and duplicates runaway acceleration by mashing the gas pedal to the floor. Then he executes three maneuvers: He stands on the brakes, he shifts into neutral and then he tries to shift into reverse. Watch what happens. (My only qualm about this video: It was filmed on a highway with other vehicles around, instead of on a much-safer test track.)

Follow me on Twitter at @theticker.

By Frank Ahrens  |  March 15, 2010; 3:05 PM ET
Categories:  Autos , Corporations , The Ticker  | Tags: Runaway acceleration, Toyota problems, runaway prius, toyota  
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Comments

I just got home from a Toyota powered Lotus test drive. That was more fun than should be legal. Supercharged electric blue. The chrome orange is even fasster. Now I need to run it by the girlfriend who is MIA. It was a real runaway ride. The thing could evade law enforcement if that became a problem. That was a sales feature. I said, no trouble I have a badge. My mind is still racing. Get here fasster.

Posted by: tossnokia | March 15, 2010 3:59 PM | Report abuse

Frank, thank you for reiterating the obvious: you don't see runaway acceleration incidents in vehicles with manual transmissions. Why? Because the drivers are used to shifting into and through neutral. People who don't know how to drive a stick are wusses.

Posted by: sasquatchbigfoot | March 15, 2010 5:57 PM | Report abuse

This approach is surely what I would use and I expect it would work with my manual transmission Corolla. But from the fuzzy stories on the web, my expectation would be that it would not work in the automated cars that have had problems. That might be simply because whatever causes the control system to lock up also locks up the shift of the automatic tranmission. But it also could be that the control system is intended to block shifting of the car under conditions where it might cause a problem. The message that seems to be coming through from Toyota is that the right approach is to use the brakes because the control system is designed to automatically shut off the engine in the case where the brakes are used when the engine is running at high speed.
Of course we also have the story from the NTHSA that the bakes were severely damaged in the recent problem Prius but that the driver is a liar because the damage patterns don't match some regulator's idea of what they should be. Of course that story still leaves the question of how the brakes were so severely damaged without the engine stopping. The NTHSA regulator may not be a liar. But his story hardly seems consistent with any kind of logic.
The bottom line is that we have at least two stories that seem to come from reasonably credible people where their Toyotas were out of control for several minutes. Since all of the controls in these cars seem to operate electronically, it is hard to have confidence that any of them would work as expected under these circumstances. We also still don't really have a clear story from Toytoa about what the last resort is supposed be that abolutely will override a failed control system.

Posted by: dnjake | March 15, 2010 6:06 PM | Report abuse

This was online with Warren Brown on Friday:

Rockville: How many know (or report) that new cars record driver actions and can be used to tell if the driver is telling the truth about fast acceleration or not? I think one recorder is in the air bag and probably others are in the cars now.

Warren Brown: The so-called automobile black-box is widely used. Not many consumers know it. I'm sure it will factor, one way or another, in the current Toyota investigation--which remains an investigation as opposed to an indictment or a conviction. There is a difference.

_______________________

Posted by: GaryEMasters | March 15, 2010 6:25 PM | Report abuse

For the Prius, it has been reported that to come to stop the engine and coast to a halt, you first need to step down on the accelerator, and then step down on the break. Though, I must admit that it would take a lot of guts to step down on the accelerator in a runaway car.

Posted by: jralger | March 15, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

From a fairly specific report on the Web. In the case of the Prius, the driver was able to regain control over his car with the help of the police. He did it by turning off the engine and using the emergency brake to stop his car. Noboby seems to be questioning the fact that the car ran at speeds of up to 90 miles an hour while the driver was having trouble controlling it. Toyota claims that the car's accelerator had no mechanical problems. It is hard to understand how this kind of experience would arise from a user problem.
In the case of the Lexus, the car's control system is totally electronic. So there was no way for the driver to switch off her ignition.

Posted by: dnjake | March 15, 2010 6:50 PM | Report abuse

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