Turn off: Could runaway car have been stopped with the key?

A week after two teenagers survived a harrowing runaway car incident on I-81, questions about what caused the car to accelerate to speeds up to 110mph linger, but according to one local mechanic, a simple maneuver might have spared the teens the terror of leaping from a moving vehicle: turning the car off.

"That's the first thing I'd do is flip the key off," says Joe Baber, owner and head mechanic at Peacock Auto Service at the corner on Meade Avenue. Baber, who did not examine the 1998 Mazda Protege involved in the incident but is familiar with that make, model and year, says its mechanical throttle cable could have been at least part of the acceleration issue. "I've seen it get sticky," he says of other similar vehicles he's worked on. "When it slides back, it could get stuck."

Irvine-California-based Mazda spokesperson Jeremy Barnes says he's unaware of any similar issues with any model Mazdas, and notes that maintenance is important for all vehicles, and especially older models. Barnes also says that the brakes of a vehicle should always override the gas.

"In this case, I have no way of knowing," Barnes says. "The most important thing is that the occupants are unhurt."

Virginia State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller says the investigation into the cause of the acceleration is ongoing, but there's little question that the incident could have had a tragic outcome, and both the driver involved and the passenger say they feared death as they hurtled past traffic on the interstate.

"I was panicking," the driver, 19-year-old Harrisonburg resident Amy Guevara told reporters gathered for an April 11 press conference in Staunton. Guevara says she'd spent the morning of April 9 shopping at Target and having lunch with her mother before picking up her friend, 19-year-old Sean Wies, with whom she had a ceramics class at Blue Ridge Community College, about 15 minutes south of Harrisonburg in Weyers Cave.

The trip down I-81 toward class was initially uneventful, both Guevara and Wies recalled, but as they neared milepost 235 and their exit, Guevara discovered the car wouldn't slow and the accelerator seemed to be stuck.

In a nearly 17-minute 911 call made by Wies and released by State Police, a dispatcher makes various suggestions, and among the first is to turn off the ignition. Wies says that isn't possible because a truck is following too closely.

State Police arrive on the scene within minutes and attempt to clear the road of other cars as Guevara follows the dispatchers' suggestions to pull up on the emergency brake and shift the car into neutral, something Baber says should have prevented further acceleration as well.

"It didn't work," Guevara tells reporters. The dispatcher doesn't mention turning off the ignition again.

On the 911 tape, as the car approaches milemarker 217, Wies's end of the call goes silent as Guevara steers into the grassy median, she told reporters, because she feared she was going to hit cars ahead. Slowed by the grass, both Guevara and Wies open their doors and leap out.

The danger wasn't over, however.

State Trooper C.J. Aikens, also a chaplain with the State Police, had been following the runaway Mazda, and he says he watched in disbelief as both teens ejected from the still moving car. Wies struggled to free himself from his seatbelt, Aikens recalls, and briefly dragged before dropping to the ground. Guevara "cartwheeled" after leaping at what Aikens estimates was approximately 40mph.

"I thought, 'She's really hurt,'" he says.

The Mazda didn't stop. Now driverless, it accelerated again, and Aikens says it started heading across the grassy median towards northbound traffic.

"I had to do something," he told gathered reporters. Speeding into the median himself, he used his unmarked vehicle to ram the Mazda back into the southbound lanes, then bumped it further until it stopped against the guardrail. Police turned the ignition off without incident, and Aiken says the impact of what had just happened began to sink in.

"I'm a Christian," he says, "so it's the grace of God that no one was hurt."

Correction: The image of a damaged front end shows the unmarked silver police vehicle. A photo of the damaged silver Mazda has been added and captions have been corrected.–ed

Original post:

The survival of the two teenagers involved in the April 9 runaway car incident on I-81 may still be considered miraculous, but, according to revised information from Virginia State Police today, it was more in keeping with the laws of physics. Still, as revealed in the now released 911 call the teenagers made, it was a harrowing, bizarre experience for the young drivers, one that could have been tragic for other drivers if it wasn't for the quick thinking of a state trooper.

A Virginia State Police press release on April 9, just three hours after the incident and containing information the Hook confirmed with State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller, claimed the 1998 Silver Mazda Protege driven by 19-year-old Amy D. Guevara of Harrisonburg was traveling at somewhere between 100 and 110 mph when Guevara and her passenger, Sean Wies, also 19 and of Harrisonburg, leaped from the moving vehicle onto pavement, somehow surviving with only minor injuries.

Information from the troopers involved given to her on April 10, says Geller, reveals that Guevara's car was actually

in the grassy median around mile marker 217 and had slowed to between 30 and 40mph when the teens bailed, allowing their survival.


Wies jumped from the front seat of the car and was dragged a slight distance before finally being able to break free from the car, Geller says.

Once they'd exited the car, Geller now says, the vehicle re-accelerated and was headed across the median and into northbound traffic when State Trooper C.J. Aikens used his cruiser to ram the driverless Mazda and force it into the guardrail, where it stopped.

According to Geller, the police vehicles involved in the operation were not equipped with dash-cams, but a nearly 17-minute 911 call, which came in at 12:32pm, reveals the teens' increasingly urgent attempts to slow the car as they traveled from milepost 232 to 217 while maneuvering around traffic and worrying about being struck by the trucks that are a staple of the north-south I-81 corridor.

"Amy, it's okay. Stay calm," says Wies, whose own voice rises only slightly on several occasions as the dispatcher offers various suggestions for slowing or stopping the car. Guevara's panic is evident in at least one scream heard on tape. The car could not be shifted into a lower gear or neutral, Wies told the dispatcher, and applying the emergency brake had little effect on the car, which continued to accelerate.

When the call begins, Wies tells the dispatcher they're traveling at approximately 50mph but are being followed closely by a truck he's concerned will strike them if they slow too suddenly. As the Mazda travels south downhill, its speed increases, although Wies says Guevara is pressing the brake. The highest speed Wies cites on the tape is 90mph, but according to Geller, the trooper who was following behind says the Mazda did top 100mph during the incident.

Trooper Aikens, who performed the maneuver that eventually stopped the car, was treated at Augusta Health and released. Wies was also treated for non-life-threatening injuries.

Aikens will hold a press conference on April 11 to share further details.


Thanks for following up on this story. The car looks surprisingly good; I don't think I want to be in her passenger seat though.

Glad to hear the Dispatcher and mechanic agree about the emergency countermeasures.

If I am not mistaken, the car pictured is an unmarked Chevrolet Impala owned and operated by the Virginia State Policer and the trooper. It is not a Mazda.

Gasbag, you're right. I captioned the wrong silver car. I've added a photo of the Mazda and corrected the caption. Thanks!--Courteney Stuart

The kids clearly said more than once on the tape that they didn't want to turn off the ignition because they had a large truck riding up their bumper.

No matter. If your throttle sticks open, don't turn off the ignition right away. Shift the car to neutral. This completely removes any acceleration that a runaway engine would provide. Then put on your flashers. Move to the shoulder, brake to a stop and THEN turn off the ignition. Its actually not that complicated once you get past the first few moments of disorientation and panic.

What the 911 tape indicated is that neither of the kids in the car understood what was going on. Nor could they convey it to the 911 operator accurately. But there is some uncertainty about whether or not the car would go to neutral. In one news story the driver reported having shifted it to neutral more than once to no effect. That is highly unlikely (broken shift linkage + stuck accelerator simultaneously? If true, buy a lottery ticket as you're playing very low odds). However, if there was some reason that shifting to neutral did not kill the car's acceleration (as long as you can tell the difference between engine-induced acceleration and the effects of gravity if on a downgrade), then you would turn off the ignition as a LAST RESORT to get the car under control.

JS has finally come to her senses.

@not buyin' it. It is still completely obvious and apparent that you are incapable of understanding cars or understanding written language.

Not a thing has changed about what I would advise people to do.

@JS - those are pretty bold words from someone who's own words are readily available on the previous stories for anyone to read. You went to great lengths to challenge the whole idea of just shutting off the ignition, something everyone else said the kids should have done, including the mechanic Courtney went and asked.

You know, right here, in your first post:

"Another thing that you should NOT do is turn off the engine - thus losing power assist to the steering, and if brakes are in play (which they may or may not have been here) you also lose power assist to the brakes."

You are now spinning your response to essentially echo what the rest of us said. The rest of us do not have a reading comprehension problem. When you're in a hole, stop digging. Either admit you were wrong or zip it.

I mean: look at the title of the article for crying out loud!

Fun to read this cool story,.... and the bit about Aiken subduing the Mazda!

@ not buyin' it. Yes, I am well aware that all of my prior comments are right there. Shall I review again for those at a kindergarten level of reading comprehension?

The initial news reports were about failed brakes.
- IF you cannot control the speed of your car BECAUSE your brakes have failed: DOWNSHIFT the car and apply the parking brake to get the car's speed under control. Under the condition of FAILED BRAKES this provides maximum ability to remain in control of the car, including its speed. (Once you are very near a dead stop you should be all the way down to the lowest gear and would THEN go to neutral).

After a while, the unfolding updates to the story made it apparent that it was probably not failed brakes but a stuck acceleration issue.
- IF you end up with runaway acceleration to get the car under control SHIFT TO NEUTRAL, apply hazards, move to the shoulder - WITH THE DAMN ENGINE RUNNING TO CONTINUE TO SUPPLY POWER ASSIST TO BRAKES AND STEERING. Stop the car with the brakes (which is much easier b/c the engine continues to supply vacuum assist to the brakes), shut it off. This maximizes your ability to control the car.
- IF for some absolutely bizarre and inexplicable reason you are in a situation where two very rare problems have happened at the same time - 1) runaway acceleration and 2) inability to shift the car to neutral - turn off the ignition AS A LAST RESORT - preferably as you apply hazard lights and pull to the side of the road.

I'm not sure why some random mechanic would be considered an "expert" how how to control a runaway car. I stopped taking my cars to mechanics a long time ago b/c so few of them know all that much about cars.

In my very first post, my comment was directed at all of those who said "just shut the car off." Sorry - that is absolutely NOT the safest bet. As the FIRST reaction it is the most dangerous thing you can do short of removing your hands from the wheel to cover your eyes for the impending crash.

Nothing I said here is any different. You have continually shown a complete inability to understand either the distinction between losing brakes and uncontrolled acceleration OR what I have been saying about it.

Here - I'll take Car & Driver over some local mechanic. http://www.caranddriver.com/features/how-to-deal-with-unintended-acceler...

Here's a key phrase: "Switching off the ignition is a sure way to silence an engine, but it’s probably the least desirable action because it will also make the car more difficult to maneuver. It causes a loss of power-steering assist, plus it will cut off vacuum boost for the brakes."

I am the one who needs to zip it. You are helping perpetuate BAD IDEAS about how to control a car in an emergency.

"I am the one who needs to zip it."

...and that, folks, is what we call a "Freudian Slip".

Seems to me that ANY of these actions would have bee preferable to endangering so many lives (not just the Mazda occupants). Didn't want to turn off the car because a truck was behind them?!? That is the most ridiculous statement in the entire story. Who cares who is behind you! It would be the truck's fault if they hit you. You would rather jump from a vehicle and release a moving car into oncoming interstate traffic? This girl should be charged with reckless driving (and stupidity).


"I am the one who needs to zip it."

...and that, folks, is what we call a "Freudian Slip"."

Yes - what we all wouldn't do for an edit button.

Keep it up JS. It looks like you're close to winning your argument with yourself. You remind me of a buddy's girlfriend who used to like to go on at length about cars when she obviously knew VERY little about driving them or working on them (she was one of the scariest drivers I've ever ridden with). He had to reluctantly take her side while she was around but would apologize profusely and then have a laugh with me once she left. We're all a lot happier that he finally freed himself of that burden.

We can settle this on the track if you want to come out to a local autocross event. My wife is usually nearby with her Toyota pickup truck. I'll take that and let you compete in anything you choose. Just write JS on your driver's side door so I know who you are.

All I have done is stated very clearly - over and over and over again - the correct, proper and safest way to control a car that has either lost its brakes OR is stuck accelerating. You, on the other hand have not offered any alternatives, nor any reasoning for them. Rather you make meaningless cracks and then go on to irrelevant things - such as we should "race" for it? That has less than nothing to do with anything in this discussion.

As I said in one of the other threads, you need to get yourself straight on the correct, proper and safest way to control a car in an emergency situation. Otherwise, we are all less safe with you driving around out there.

Shutting off the car would have been their best option after putting it in Neutral didn't work.

Tuck and roll out of a moving car is pretty idiotic... these need to be a question on the DMV test to get a drivers license.

The technical problems occur in car such as mentioned in the above blog will be tackled by present commonsense and by using some techniques. Present of mind is very essential for such problems.

It is a good job did by Virginia State Police Trooper C.J. Aikens. It is not only the job but also his responsibility. The above article is a good example for us.
Mini Cooper Repair Hesperia

Argue it until you're all blue in the face, or face the truth. Face it folks, it's the year 2013. The only way our youth of today would know how to handle a situation like this is if there is an application on an iPhone.

Perhaps it is just me, but in my half century of existence, I never heard of automobiles having this issue. Once as a child, a neighbor attempting to fix his car the least expensive manner possible, used a spring off a screen door to replace a throttle cable. That situation ended badly. My point is, what seems to be the issues with computer controlled accelerators? The last two or three years, there has been an explosion of mechanical malfunctions. Mt father was right when he commented on the mating of computers to engines; The more you overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain." I do not need nor desire my vehicle to decide when I need lights or windshield wipers. Has anhyone noticed the number of cars that drive around after sunset without tail or parkng lights illuminated? Why? Because the dashboard is illuminated now, evertyime the key is activated, and/or the DRL's are on, which is great if you are approaching the vehicle, but not very safe when you suddenly discover a dark colored vehicle ahead of you.Gasbag has a point. Commonsense seems to be unavailable if it cannot be downloaded.