Stopping a Runaway Car

CAR AND DRIVER TIPS — Tip #10- Stopping a Runaway Car

In recent months news reports have surfaced of runaway cars complete with grisly details of accidents that have occurred as a result. In some cases police dispatchers can be heard offering counsel to those who automobiles are speeding down a highway out of control.

Even now automobile manufacturers are at work correcting this problem that has involved many vehicles. In some cases the auto’s engine has dropped back to slower speeds allowing the owner to bring it to a halt. In other instances more tragic results have occurred.

In years gone by a time or two, while I worked on my car, I have allowed the throttle linkage to become disconnected. Under certain circumstances this can allow the engine to “run off.” On older model cars the device that controls engine speed is often quite simple, merely a metal hinge or slide type device that is retained by a spring keeping the engine at a speed acceptable to the driver who works the accelerator pedal.

Newer and more sophisticated automobile engines have speed controls that involve throttle position sensors and other sensitive devices. At present opinion seems to be divided among those studying the problem of engine speed control as to the major causes that create this “runaway effect.”

Listening to a nationwide broadcast by an auto “expert” recently, I heard the following advice:

“If your car suddenly accelerates press the brake pedal firmly, pull over to the side of the road and turn the key off.”

My response to this advice was astonishment as to its simplicity. My response was also surprise at making the solution to the problem sound so simple. It is not! Here is the problem.

When a modern motor car goes to maximum RPMs (revolutions per minute) even a small engine can produce tremendous torque (twisting power). If it does, it is highly unlikely that applying the brakes of the vehicle will result in shutting down the engine — there is simply too much power for the relatively small brake surfaces to overcome.

At high speeds, applying the brakes while the engine is delivering power to the wheels will simply “glaze” the braking surfaces, making them of no effect. Once so disabled the braking system figures little in effectiveness.

One awful circumstance in which a gentleman’s expensive foreign car was running off, at speeds over 100 mile per hour, the terrified driver can be heard saying, “We are in trouble.” He had tried braking with no result. As it turned out, his cry was terribly prophetic. The car crashed killing him and his family. So very sadly, this driver had the means to save the lives of himself and his loves ones basically in his lap.

Here is what needs to be borne in mind by every driver when he or she pulls away from one’s home headed to an intended destination. No engine can operate if it is deprived of electrical power. This simply means that among the other alternatives at one’s disposal in such an emergency is the most simple of all: switch the engine ignition to the “OFF” position. In every vehicle I remember driving in the past many years this means specifically reaching up to the steering column with the right hand and, with hand on the key or ignition switch, turning the top of the switch back to the driver, this is counterclockwise. The result will be that instantly the engine will “die,” that is will shut off.

Whether the auto is traveling at high or low speeds the effect will be a noticeable slowdown almost instantly. Once the engine is no longer turning the brakes may then be applied with good effect to allow the car to be steered safely to the side of the roadway. In my opinion this is the simplest,  and probably safest means of overcoming the problem of a runaway vehicle.

Note: When the engine shuts down the power steering unit will no longer assist with steering.,  You can still steer the car to a safe stop!

A second solution to the problem of bringing a runaway car to a safe stop is to place the gearshift lever in “NEUTRAL” position. I do not advise this as a first resort for the following reason. A panicked driver may have a difficult time moving the shift lever the rather tiny amount to find the neutral position. Even if that is successful, the racing engine can be unnerving to the point of confusion as to whether what the driver did made any difference. Nevertheless, once shifted into neutral, the transmission will not convey power to the wheels regardless of engine speed. The vehicle in neutral can be guided to a safe stop.

Some have suggested that placing the shift lever into “LOW” or even “REVERSE” position. I am not knowledgeable enough about modern transmissions to speak to this issue. It seems highly unlikely to me that shifting at high speeds would effect a stop. Even if it did, the vehicle would be basically out of control. I do not see this as a wise or workable option.

Turning off the engine ignition switch or shifting to neutral are effective ways to overcome a runaway situation. When either of theses options is employed the vehicle’s braking system should be capable of maximum effect to bring about a safe stop.

Just one final word of caution. Most drivers have never heard their engine racing at full power. When shifting to neutral while engine is racing at its peak RPMs will create such a roar that many drivers can be unnerved to the degree that loss of control of the vehicle is a real possibility. Never mind the engine roar, a driver must tell himself or herself, if the engine is in neutral the engine’s power is not being transferred to the wheels. Turning off the switch will silence the engine.

Be careful, drive safely and work through your options. A runaway vehicle CAN be brought under control safely. If you suspect your vehicle shows signs of unexplainable power surges or abnormally high idle speeds it would be advisable to have the dealership of that vehicle check it out. The safety of you and your family and others on the road demands that we take proper precautions for safe driving and control.

To be sure one is prepared to shut down a runaway engine, I recommend that at slow speeds, perhaps in a relatively deserted place, the driver shut off the engine and coast over to a stop. By practicing this maneuver a driver may be better prepared to take emergency action.

Safe driving everyone!

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