Video: What to do if your car suddenly accelerates, and what not to do

Consumer Reports News: March 10, 2010 05:30 PM

Sudden, unintended acceleration has been made into the great terror of the American highways and byways, though drivers can quickly and easily regain control of a car should it experience this rare, though admittedly frightening event. The high-profile example of the runaway Toyota Prius in the San Diego area this week highlights the need for all drivers to know how to put the vehicle in Neutral.

Monday afternoon, Jim Sikes called 9-1-1 to report that his Prius accelerator was stuck. He was speeding in excess of 80 mph on a highway and eventually crested 90 mph. (Read: " Toyota Prius investigated after high-speed sudden acceleration incident.")

During the call, the 9-1-1 operator properly suggested putting the car in Neutral.

In a CNN interview, Sikes said "I was afraid to go over there and put it in Neutral. I was holding on to the steering wheel with both hands."
Had Sikes put the car into Neutral, the engine would no longer be propelling the car forward, and he would have maintained power steering and braking, enabling him to safely come to a stop and turn the engine off.

Sike also said during the CNN interview, "I kept hitting the brakes, I kept hitting the brakes."

We cannot be certain of how he was applying the brakes, but the phrasing opens up the potential that he had pumped the brakes. If the brakes are pressed repeatedly when an engine is as wide-open throttle, rather than held in a single motion, the brake system will lose its vacuum assist and therefore its effectiveness.

We won't know the particulars of this acceleration adventure until the investigation is complete, and even then there may still be questions. But, what we do know is that this can serve as a learning opportunity for all drivers.

As highlighted in our embedded video, there are a few simple steps that can effectively neutralize the risks associated with unintended acceleration.
1. Brake firmly. Do not pump the brakes. Do not turn off the engine yet, because doing so would disable the power assist for your steering and brakes.
2. Shift the transmission into Neutral. Don't worry if the engine revs up alarmingly - most modern cars have rev-limiters to protect it, and this move will put you in back in control of your vehicle.
3. Steer to a safe location and come to a full stop.
4. Shut off the engine with the transmission still in Neutral.
5. Finally, shift the transmission into Park or, with a manual transmission, set the emergency brake. Then breathe deep and call for help. Do not attempt to drive the car.
Memorize the above steps to prepare for the rare chance that you might experience unintended acceleration. Better yet, practice them in a safe location at low speeds until you feel comfortable with them. They could save your life.

Download a PDF of our advice.

Jeff Bartlett

Be sure to follow Consumer Reports Cars blog (RSS) and Twitter (@CRcars) to keep up with the latest information and advice, also see our unintended acceleration guide.

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Five key fixes automakers should make now to reduce unintended acceleration
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How to tell if your Toyota is affected by the recent recalls
How to stop a runaway car: Don’t pump the brakes

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