Toyota: Survive First, Sue Later

Last Updated Mar 13, 2010 12:38 PM EST

How do you stop a runaway Toyota?

When I was a kid learning to drive, my mom was always giving me tips on how to handle emergency situations -- like hitting a patch of ice, or losing your brakes on a windy mountain road. I found our roles reversed the other day, when I was driving my parents in their hybrid Toyota Camry to San Diego.

It was not long after an off-duty Highway Patrol officer was killed with three other members of his family in a Toyota that sped out of control. Toyota blamed the problem on heavy and improperly positioned floor mats. My mom said their car had already gotten the new mats. But I didn't believe that a CHP officer would get flummoxed by something so simple. Like a growing number of cynics, I'm convinced this problem is electronic, random and scary.

There was another report of a runaway Toyota this week--a San Diego realtor got the Highway Patrol to help him stop his racing Prius--but it's important to note that these problems are also rare. So it doesn't make sense to mothball your $30,000 car to avoid the unlikely chance that it happens to you.

What does make sense is to practice the kind of emergency plan thinking that my mom initiated with my sister and I. We'd get a refresher every time the risks were high because we were driving through a storm or through the mountains to go skiing, for example, so we didn't panic. We followed the directions we already had running through our heads.

With increasing reports of runaway cars and no real explanation of what's causing it, it makes sense for every Toyota owner to think through their emergency plan before they get in the vehicle. The hope is that will help you avoid panic and survive if it ever happens to you.

"Any plan is better than no plan," Sgt. Mark Garrett, a highway patrol spokesman I called to research this story. "Having a plan in your mind is the best thing to do."

How do you stop a runaway Toyota?
The consensus view is that you jam the car into neutral. Consumer Reports suggest that you practice this a few times, in safe places, until it becomes familiar. The engine will still race, but neutral will disengage your wheels, so the car should coast to a stop. I'm told this won't even ruin your transmission.

What if that doesn't work?

Plan B: James Sikes, the San Diego realtor, slowed his Prius by pulling on his emergency brake. That took his speed down to about 55 mph from the 90 miles-per-hour he'd sped up to. He said in a press conference that he'd also attempted to "unstick" his accelerator pedal with no luck. Pressing on the brakes was ineffective.

When the emergency brake was able to take down his speed, Sikes turned the engine off. It takes about three seconds of continuous pressure on the start button to stop the engine on a hybrid. When you're racing at 90 miles an hour, it may be tough to calmly count to three.

Another option: If you need to stop the hybrid and can't seem to get the off button to work, throw your keys out the window. (You should have the keys handy, when you get in the car.) You don't need to use the key to start many hybrids, but the car needs to be able to sense the key for it to operate. If you are racing down the road, throwing the keys out the window is certain to get you out of the key radius in no time.

Naturally, while your car is coasting, you should flip on your emergency flashers and attempt to get to a safe spot on the side of the road.

It also makes sense to pay attention to the road you're traveling. If other efforts to stop your car don't work, you can look for a soft shoulder where you might be able to get the wheels stuck. At the bottom of many windy mountain roads, there are "escape medians," which are shoulders filled with gravel, aimed at stopping heavy trucks that lose their brakes. Many an inebriated co-ed has learned the hard way that these medians can also stop a sedan in no time.

Is this a fail-safe list? Probably not. The reality is, no one knows for certain what's making these cars race. That makes it tough to be certain that you can find a solution to stopping the car too. But any reasonable plan is better than no plan at all.

What happens if your effort to stop the car destroys it? Your first order of business is to survive. That means you'll be around to demand repayment, or sue another day.