Shifting Into Neutral

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Fair warning: I haven’t paid a ton of attention to the whole Toyota sudden acceleration thing, so maybe this has all been discussed to death. But I keep wondering what’s really going on. If your engine is racing and you stand on the brakes, your car will stop. Right? Or, at the very least, it will certainly slow down a lot. And while I understand why you might not want to turn off the ignition, since that can lock up your steering, you can always put your car into neutral and coast to a stop. Why didn’t the drivers of runaway Toyotas do this?

Obviously panic is part of it. If my car suddenly started racing off at a hundred miles an hour, maybe I wouldn’t be thinking clearly enough to put the car into neutral. But a couple of days ago a guy in San Diego got plastered all over my TV when his Toyota went crazy and eventually had to be stopped by a CHP patrol car. Today, someone asked him about his reaction:

Sikes called 911 on Monday to report that his gas pedal was stuck and his blue 2008 Prius was speeding at 94 mph down a freeway near San Diego. A CHP officer helped bring the car to a stop, but not before two calls to police dispatchers that spanned 23 minutes.

Asked why he didn’t simply put his car in neutral, Sikes said: “You had to be there. I might go into reverse. I didn’t know if the car would flip. I had no idea how it would react.”

Seriously? His car was speeding at 94 mph for 23 minutes and he was afraid to put his gearshift into neutral? Or just turn the ignition off once he got to a relatively straight portion of the freeway? The linked story gives plenty of other reasons to think this whole thing might be a hoax too.

But even for the non-hoaxsters, what’s the deal? A few seconds of panic I can understand, but your first reaction would be to jam on the brakes, and once that got you into non-heartpounding territory wouldn’t you just shift into neutral and slow to a stop? Do I only think this way because I’ve spent most of my life driving stick shifts, where neutral plays a bigger role than it does in an automatic transmission? Does this have something to do with it? What am I missing here?

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