Runaway cars are an often overlooked danger to children. Since 2002, at least 100 kids have died inside a runaway car. We’ve also encountered numerous other accidents in which children outside of a car have been struck and killed by someone else’s runaway car. In one particularly tragic case, an unoccupied delivery van started rolling backwards down a hill, jumped a curb, and struck children who were walking to a day care center. Two of the kids were killed, and a third was seriously injured. (USA Today, 1-23-09, p. 3A)

Parents often leave their kids inside the car when conducting simple errands, such as getting gas, checking the air on their tires, or even stepping out for just a moment to talk to someone. During this time a child may get up and climb around, somehow dislodging the gear from park. Other accidents occur when children are playing in cars and deactivate the emergency brake, put the transmission into gear, or otherwise get the car rolling. Other parents may simply forget to set the brake after parking on a slope, and can’t correct it once they realize their mistake. However it happens, the runaway vehicle ends up rolling into traffic and being struck by another car. In some cases, kids may panic and try to jump out, and end up falling out of the car and being run over.

There are some simple steps parents can take to reduce this risk:

  1. Always use your emergency brake! Apply it even when you don’t think you’re parked on a slope. In some municipalities, it is actually illegal NOT to use your emergency brake. Just keep in mind that this does not prevent a car from being shifted into gear, which may overpower the emergency brake.
  1. Whenever parking on a hill, don’t hop right out. Set your brake, release the pedals, and stay put for 5 to 10 seconds to ensure it won’t roll. This quick and simple step will help ensure you don’t end up chasing your car down the hill.
  1. Have a talk with children about the dangers of playing around inside cars. Show them where the gear shift and levers are, and explain that bumping these could cause the car to roll.

Check your car for a brake transmission shift interlock system (BTSI)

In 2006, the Nationaly Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) asked automakers to add BTSI systems to all new models in the U.S. with automatic transmissions. This means that no matter what position the key is in, a driver must have a foot on the brake when shifting the car out of park, thus preventing kids from accidentally putting a vehicle into gear. BTSI systems have since been included in around 80% of cars made since 2006. You can ask your car dealer or manufacturer whether your car has BTSI, or check it yourself through this simple test:

  1. Clear the area in all directions of the car and ensure that no one is around.
  1. Park the car on a flat surface, and make sure the emergency brake is on to keep the vehicle from moving.
  1. Put the key in the ignition switch and turn it to the “Accessory” position.
  1. Next, try to shift your car into gear WITHOUT putting your foot on the brake pedal. Then repeat this test in all key positions. (Most cars have four: Off, Accessory, On, and Start.)

If your car shifts into gear without your foot on the brake pedal, then you do not have a BTSI system and your car can be put into gear unintentionally, either by you or your child.