The Car Accidents You Don't Think About

The Problem: Runaway Vehicles

Elizabeth Garcia, of Gainesville, Florida, had a leak in one of her minivan's tires, so she went to fill it with air at a gas station. She had her 4-year-old son, Joel, and her 19-month-old, Zachary, buckled in their car seats. She took the keys out of the ignition and was kneeling down, filling the tire, when the van started to move backwards. She jumped up to see that Joel had gotten out of his car seat and climbed into the driver's seat, accidentally locking the doors in the process. Then he put the gearshift in reverse. "I'm not sure how I did it, but I held the van and used all my strength to slow it down while banging on the window and asking Joel to open the door," Garcia says. He finally did. She hopped in and stepped on the brake pedal before the van backed into the street. "It turns out that my van's steering wheel doesn't lock in place and you can put the car into gear without having the key in the ignition," she says.

Joel and Zachary could have been among the 100 children who have died in a runaway car since 2002, according to KidsAndCars.org. "When a car starts rolling, kids sometimes become scared and jump, or fall, out of the vehicle and get run over," Fennell says.

Prevent an accident: It's always a good idea to pull up your emergency brake whenever your vehicle is parked, and in some jurisdictions it's illegal not to do so. However, engaging the emergency brake does not guarantee that a vehicle can't be shifted into gear.

In 2006, the auto industry, along with the NHTSA, asked manufacturers to add a brake transmission shift interlock system (BTSI) to all new models with automatic transmission that are sold in the United States. No matter what position the key is in, BTSI forces the driver to have a foot on the brake when shifting out of park, keeping kids from unintentionally putting a vehicle into gear. About 80 percent of cars made in 2006 and beyond include this safety feature. In models that don't, you must rely on the emergency brake to keep the car from moving. Ask your dealer or manufacturer whether your car has BTSI. Or try this test:

  1. Make sure no one is around your car.
  2. With your car on a flat surface, get in and make sure that the emergency brake is on to prevent the vehicle from moving as you test the different key positions (most cars have four: Off, Accessory, On, and Start).
  3. Put the key in the ignition switch and turn it to the Accessory position.
  4. Try to shift your car into gear without putting your foot on the brake.
  5. Repeat this test in all key positions.

If your car shifts into gear without your foot on the brake pedal, then your car can be put into gear unintentionally, by you or a child.

The one comfort to take from these upsetting stories: There are ways to make sure that they don't happen to your family. "Parents need to tell their kids to stay away from cars, and they should never leave them alone in cars, period," Dr. Eichelberger says. "That's the best prevention for injuries like these, and it doesn't cost a cent."

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