Runaway Car

Audrey Fraizer

Audrey Fraizer

Best Practices

Audrey Fraizer

Choices are limited when your car is speeding out of control, and madly pumping the brake doesn’t do a thing to stop you.

And the choice you make depends on a lot of variables, not in the least being where you are and obstacles along the chosen path.

For 16-year-old Olivia Crooks, navigating at speeds topping 60 miles per hour down a residential street on a breezy October afternoon in 2015 left her with little time to decide what to do. Like a race car on a quarter-mile track, Crooks initially figured she could steer the 2004 PT Cruiser to a cul-de-sac and spin the car around in a circle until the gas tank ran empty. In a tight space away from traffic and pedestrians, she could avoid a collision and the possibility of unintended collateral damage.

At least, that’s the thinking she later confirmed in newspaper reports.

Maybe it was impulse—an instinctive action while in crisis—that made Crooks pick up her phone and call 911. Her car had bolted out of the Southwest High School parking lot in Green Bay, Wisconsin (USA), and onto the roadway. She was not in control, her vehicle was, and she needed help NOW. The heck with a cul-de-sac.

The emergency dispatcher answering Crooks’ call at Brown County Public Safety Communications in Green Bay had an even better solution. Julia Robak had the advantage of a protocol developed by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch® (IAED) to override stuck accelerators in both manual and automatic transmissions. They had recently trained on using the protocol. Robak also had the benefit of a second emergency dispatcher who dispatched response while she provided instructions.

Robak determined the car and driver’s location and asked the type of transmission.

“Automatic,” Crooks said.

“Okay, shift into neutral or ‘N’ now,” said Robak, following the “Accelerator Stuck & Can’t Stop Vehicle” instructions.

Crooks complied.

Robak next told her to “apply firm, constant pressure” to the brake pedal gradually until coming to a safe stop.

“Don’t pump the brake,” she cautioned Crooks.

Crooks held tight to the steering wheel, her foot on the brake, and guided the car to the side of the road. The car stopped. She got out.

Stuck Accelerator_shutterstock_1027408585 [Converted]

Police responding to the scene put the car in park and turned off the ignition. Crooks was shaken but not injured and by this time—knowing Crooks was stopped and safe—Robak had disconnected and was on to the next 911 call. The incident, from the time the PT Cruiser bolted out of the parking lot to a curbside rest, totaled about two minutes.

Robak and Crooks met face-to-face through a spot on “Good Morning America” filmed in front of the high school. As much as they were both thankful, Robak said she was doubly so.

“It all went so well,” Robak said. “She knew where she was. She focused on what I was saying, and she trusted what I told her. She didn’t question. She just did it.”

Robak backs away from taking full credit. She had the protocol, an attentive caller, and a center that constantly trains and supports its emergency dispatchers. Publicity over the call, she said, showed the positive side of 911, reflecting well on the entire staff and a profession she finds “rewarding” and without the grind of two days ever being alike.

“I went to school for criminal justice,” said Robak, who has been in emergency dispatch for a little more than a decade. “I wanted to be a detective, and 911 isn’t that much different. We’re always looking for information that will help our callers and responders.”

The IAED released the Accelerator Stuck & Can’t Stop Vehicle Protocol in manual card format on March 22, 2010, for use by emergency dispatchers in all three disciplines—police, fire, and medical. The ProQA® version was released two weeks later. The protocol’s instructions revolve around managing the situation—bringing the vehicle to a resting place while securing the safety of the occupants inside.