Runaway Thoughts of a Prius Driver

I’ve driven a 2007-model Toyota Prius for two and a half years, so you can bet I’ve been following the news over the recalls and reports of uncontrolled acceleration. Monday’s runaway Prius incident, which involved a car that looks exactly like mine, has made me think even more about the problem.

Now, I’m not overly concerned, because the number of incidents is still small compared to the number of cars out on the road. And in the entire time I’ve been driving it, I can only think of two circumstances in which the car accelerated in a way I didn’t expect, both of them when driving on an incline:

  • The transmission has been kind of sluggish a couple of times when starting, causing a slight lurch once it switches gears.
  • Hitting an incline with cruise control. The car has to work harder to maintain the same speed, so it feels like it’s accelerating.

From what I’ve heard previously, the acceleration problems have had to do with malfunctioning cruise control, and I don’t really use cruise control anymore. (Not since I realized that it wasn’t a good fit for actual driving conditions.) Annoyingly, none of the articles I’ve read about James Sikes’ experience say whether he was using cruise control at the time or not.

They do say that he wore out the brakes, but refused to turn off the car or put it in neutral (as the 911 dispatcher advised him during the 23-minute call), and finally got it under control when a CHP officer had him apply both the regular and emergency brakes together.

So, what to do in this situation?

  • Brakes aren’t enough, but they’re a good start.
  • Turn off cruise control if it’s on. Some reports of cc-related problems have said that tapping the brakes didn’t disengage it as it’s supposed to, but manually disabling it did.
  • Putting it in neutral should cut off the engine from the wheels and still leave you steering. Sikes’ reason for not doing this when the dispatcher told him to — that he was afraid the car would flip — doesn’t make any sense to me.
  • Turning the car off locks the steering wheel, or at least turns off power steering. Not ideal for 90 MPH, so I understand Sikes’ reluctance here, but if the computer has essentially hung, push-and-hold for a hard shutdown might be the only thing you can do. I’d rather skid to a stop with minimal control than slam into a wall at 90.
  • The parking brake can double as an emergency brake. It might not stop you completely (it didn’t for Sikes), but it should help get the car under control again.

I don’t expect any trouble, just based on statistics, but at least now I have an idea of what to do if I ever do find myself in this situation.

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