How To Stop a Runaway Vehicle

And Make Sure It Never Happens in the First Place


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    If a car's accelerator does not return to idle after you release it, one option is to turn off the key. But don't remove the key from the ignition, or the steering wheel could lock. | March 18, 2010

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The tragic story of a California state trooper who was killed along with his family in San Diego in a runaway car has made many drivers wonder how they would react in a similar situation. The key is to know exactly how to respond before this happens. If you do, reflex takes over and you can avoid an accident.

There are several ways to bring a car under control if it won't stop accelerating or return to lower speeds after you take your foot off the gas pedal. Also, there are several important things to check on your vehicle to avoid ever getting into this dangerous situation in the first place.

Simple Cause — Deadly Result
While the San Diego accident is still under investigation, authorities believe the trooper's crash was caused when the car's accelerator pedal was held down by misaligned floor mats. Toyota responded to this and other similar incidents with the recall of 3.8 million of its vehicles, the largest in the company's history.

In most cases, floor mats are held in place by hooks or fasteners of some kind. But often the mats are not reattached properly after a trip to the car wash or when the owner removes them during cleaning. As the driver gets in and out of the car, the mats can move enough so the front right corner can hold down a top-hinged accelerator pedal. Often the gas pedal gets stuck open while you're passing another car or accelerating away from a stoplight — situations when the gas pedal is pushed down all the way.

This situation can happen to nearly anyone. An informal survey of Edmunds.com's long-term test fleet revealed that three of 12 vehicles — a full 25 percent — had floor mats that were not properly attached. Heavy, rubberized winter floor mats are even more prone to interfere with the throttle than the lighter, carpeted mats.

If It Happens to You
What do you do if you find yourself hurtling forward in a car that won't slow down? Here are your options. We urge you to check your own vehicle to see which one works best. You can even safely practice these steps to see which works best.

  • If possible, reach down and pull back the floor mat to dislodge it from the accelerator pedal. Then pull over and stop the vehicle to inspect it before continuing.
  • Insert your shoe behind the gas pedal and pull it up from behind. This can release a throttle held down by a mat or a defective pedal return spring.
  • If these steps don't correct the situation, shift the transmission into Neutral (N) and then brake to a stop. Be prepared to hear the sound of the engine revving loudly. This does not mean the car is going faster, only that the engine is disengaged from the transmission. It could also damage the engine, but this is a matter of personal safety, so it is unavoidable.
  • If you're unable to put the vehicle in Neutral, turn the engine off, or to ACC. Without the engine running, power assist will be lost so it will be much harder to turn the steering wheel and apply the brakes.
  • If these steps don't work, firmly and steadily step on the brake pedal with both feet. Do NOT pump the brake pedal repeatedly, as this will increase the effort required to slow the vehicle.
  • If the vehicle is equipped with a key ignition, turn the ignition key to the ACC position to turn off the engine. Do NOT remove the key from the ignition, as this will lock the steering wheel and you will not be able to turn.
  • If the vehicle is equipped with an engine start/stop button, manufacturers have different procedures to shut off the engine while it is in Drive. Check your owner's manual next time you get in your car for which method it uses. For example, some carmakers require you to firmly and steadily push the button for at least 3 seconds to turn off the engine. Others require you to press the button three times in succession.

Take Preventive Steps
It's very easy to make sure your floor mats are properly installed so you never find yourself in a dangerously accelerating vehicle. Here are a few simple steps.

  • Always make sure your floor mat is properly positioned and secured by hooks or fasteners.
  • Recheck the position of the floor mats after every car wash or service visit.
  • Never stack heavy rubber winter mats on top of carpet mats. Remove the carpeted mats from the car and attach the winter ones to the retaining hooks or clips.
  • Avoid using aftermarket floor mats that don't connect to the retaining clips in your car unless they provide some other reliable retention method. Rubberized treads on the bottom are insufficient because they wear down over time and become ineffective.
  • Always use floor mats cut specifically for your make and model of car. In the crash that killed the trooper, the mats were too large for the car they were in.
  • Test the throttle pedal clearance by hand, making sure the mat stays clear of the bottom edge of the pedal as it moves all the way to the floor. This is particularly important in cars that have top-hinged pedals.
  • If there is any doubt, take the floor mats out. A floor mat in the trunk cannot interfere with the throttle pedal.

Staying Safe
The good news is that stuck throttle situations are very rare. Cars have built-in preventive mechanisms, multiple throttle return springs and other features to prevent such a scenario. Some cars even have shut-off mechanisms that can sense if the gas pedal is stuck. But the recent floor mat-related crash reminds us that unintended consequences on the simplest level still exist in the automotive world. Proper care and planning ahead will prevent you from ever finding yourself in this deadly situation.

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