Shift to neutral in an automatic to avoid sudden acceleration danger

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A close-up of an automatic transmission gear shift panel.

Shift to neutral and avoid a sudden acceleration crash. (Photo Credit: CC BY-SA/Shane K/Flickr)

There’s an old wives’ tale that claims that if you shift an automatic transmission into neutral while the car is in motion, the engine will explode, or at least become a screeching, bellicose little person. But as experienced driving instructors can attest, a shift to neutral at speed will not only not destroy the engine, but it can save your life if you face a potential accident due to sudden acceleration.

Shift sudden acceleration into neutral

A stuck throttle – the harbinger of sudden, unintended acceleration – can lead to serious property damage, injuries and even death. While relatively rare, the mainstream media has given the ghost-in-the-machine demon stories of cars careening out of control wings. The answer, according to Popular Mechanics, is to shift into neutral, even in an automatic transmission car.

Don’t believe? Consider that government and private studies have found that nearly all sudden acceleration crashes occur as a result of the driver pressing the gas pedal instead of the brake. A stuck throttle can occur for another reason, but this is far from typical. Whatever the case, a shift to neutral will prevent the vehicle from accelerating. No matter how hard you hit the gas, or if the gas pedal is stuck to the floor due to a mechanism or floor mat defect, a transmission in neutral will not pick up speed due to the driver’s action. This can save you from an accident whether you’re driving or a passenger (and the driver is less than capable of driving at a safe speed).

Don’t fear the shifter

The electronic limiter in a modern engine prevents damage to the engine when an automatic transmission is shifted into neutral as the vehicle is in motion. The car won’t fly into reverse or dump into park. Newer vehicles with electronic transmission control will automatically ignore a shift to park while the car is moving, or only go into park if the vehicle is traveling at a half-mile per hour or less. Shifting into reverse while driving forward should be avoided, although it still won’t blow the engine.

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Your sudden acceleration survival checklist

In the event that you’re driving and you face a sudden, unintended acceleration scenario, here’s what you should do:

  1. Shift to neutral.
  2. Apply the brakes and move to a safe position.
  3. Shut off the engine without shifting.
  4. Shift to park.

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Stopping sudden acceleration


Consumer Reports

New York Times

Popular Mechanics

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