What to do if the brakes fail… accelerator sticks… or a tire blows

Tragically, runaway vehicles have been in the news in recent months, as a series of crashes caused by stuck accelerator pedals has led to several deaths in the US and to the recall of millions of vehicles.

Runaway vehicles are relatively rare, but they are possible with any vehicle make and model. They may occur because parts fail or wear out, especially if vehicles are not properly maintained.

If you find yourself behind the wheel of a runaway car, you must act quickly and wisely to avoid a crash. The two most common reactions are to immediately slam on the brakes or repeatedly pump the brakes, but these measures could be ineffective or even detrimental.

The proper response to a runaway vehicle depends on why the vehicle has gone out of control.

Unintended acceleration

Your foot is off the accelerator, yet your speed continues to climb. You hear the engine working harder and feel pushed back into your seat.

1. Shift into neutral. This is easy to accomplish with a manual transmission, but it might be a little tricky with certain automatic transmissions. All automatic transmissions allow drivers to shift from drive to neutral while moving (and you don’t need to depress the brake as you do this). But some automatic transmission shift mechanisms have “gates,” or grooves in the gearshift box designed to help drivers access special transmission modes, such as upshifting and downshifting. Unfortunately, these gates can make it more challenging to locate neutral in an emergency. If your vehicle has an automatic transmission, practice shifting into neutral with the car parked and running so that you’ll be familiar with how it feels in an emergency.

Shifting to neutral disengages the engine from the transmission, preventing further acceleration, but does not slow the engine itself. Even with the car in neutral, you likely will continue to hear the engine revving.

Warning: Some news reports have suggested turning the key in the ignition of a runaway vehicle to the “off” position if finding neutral proves difficult. (Note that this is not an option in vehicles equipped with keyless start/stop systems.) Do this only as a last resort and only after several attempts to shift into neutral have failed. Turning the ignition off will rob most vehicles of their power steering and much of their braking power. Under no circumstances should you ever remove the key from the ignition while the vehicle is in motion, because this locks the steering wheel.

2. Step on the brake pedal as hard as you can. Do this while you are putting the car into neutral — or as soon as you can after putting the car into neutral. Put all of your weight into it, and keep your weight on the brake. The braking systems of modern vehicles depend on a vacuum created by the engine to generate much of their stopping power. This vacuum largely disappears when the accelerator is stuck and the engine is revving, which means extra force may be required from the driver. Do not pump the brakes. Pumping will not enable you to build up the vacuum you need to slow the car.

3. If the first two steps bring no signs of slowing the vehicle, try to work your toe under the accelerator pedal and lift it up.

4. If you are unable to stop the car after trying the first three steps and are faced with a dangerous situation (such as heavy traffic or a busy intersection), gently guide the side of your vehicle up against a guardrail or other barrier that runs along the side of the road. The friction should slow down your vehicle. Your car will sustain considerable damage, but that’s better than plowing headlong into something at full speed.

Many people ask about using the parking brake (once commonly known as the emergency brake). It is not recommended in this situation, because this brake is weaker and more difficult to control than a standard braking system.

5. No matter what method stopped your vehicle, do not attempt to drive it afterward. Turn off the ignition, then call a tow truck.

Brake failure

You step on the brakes, but your vehicle does not slow or slows less rapidly than usual… and the resistance of the brake pedal feels either much harder or softer than normal under your foot. Brake failure typically is caused by either a hydraulic fluid leak in the brake line or by badly worn brake pads. (If your vehicle has been recalled because of brake failure problems, check to see whether brake failure instructions have been issued for your specific vehicle.)

1. Tap the brakes a few times. In the case of brake failure, tapping the brake pedal could build up any hydraulic pressure that remains in the vehicle’s hydraulic line, increasing the brakes’ stopping power. Even drivers with vehicles that have antilock brakes should tap a few times.

2. Engage the parking brake as slowly and gently as circumstances permit. If tapping the brakes does not bring the vehicle to a halt, the parking brake is your best bet. Engaging this brake slowly reduces the odds that the vehicle will go into a difficult-to-control skid. If you don’t engage your parking brake often, practice reaching for it while the car is parked so that you can familiarize yourself with its position.

3. If it appears that you won’t be able to stop before colliding with another car or running off the road in a curve, gently guide the side of your car up against a guardrail or other barrier that runs along the side of the roadway.

4. Attempt to coast to a stop on the shoulder or some other safe spot. Then call a tow truck.

Tire Blow-Out

You feel a jolt and hear a loud noise … and instantly your vehicle becomes difficult to handle. This often indicates that a tire has blown out.

1. Grip the steering wheel firmly with both hands. It usually will take some effort to keep your car in its lane.

2. Lift your foot off the gas. Resist the urge to brake unless you are in a situation where you absolutely must stop quickly. If a tire has blown out, braking is likely to make your vehicle very difficult to control. It could even put the vehicle into a dangerous skid.

3. Gently apply the brakes only when you think you have the vehicle largely back under control, when there is no longer a sensation of skidding or zigzagging.

4. Guide the vehicle onto the shoulder or some other safe spot, then change the tire or call for help.

Headlight failure

You’re driving at night when suddenly everything goes dark. Headlight failure could be caused by an electrical problem or simply a burned-out bulb.

1. Turn on your high beams. The high beams usually are on a different circuit than the regular headlights and may work even when the regular ones fail.

2. Turn on your parking and/or hazard lights (which are on a different circuit than the headlights in most vehicles). If the high beams don’t work, the parking and hazard lights can provide at least enough illumination for you to see the road immediately ahead and to help other drivers see you.

3. Slow your vehicle and come to a stop in a safe spot, such as the shoulder, as soon as possible. Turn on your hazard lights (if they are not already on), then turn off the ignition and call for help.

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