Dear Tom and Ray:
A scary thing happened to me yesterday on the highway. I was driving a 1999 Nissan Altima that I bought last year. It has about 90,000 miles. Yesterday I was in the far-left lane on the highway, coasting along at about 60 mph, when I came around a curve and noticed a huge backup in front of me. It was very sunny, so I didn't see the stopped cars until I was very close to them. I slammed on my brakes very hard and stopped just short of the car in front of me. I also skidded a bit. After catching my breath and almost having a heart attack, the cars in front of me started moving again -- but I was completely locked up! My brake pedal was frozen, the gas pedal wouldn't do anything and my steering wheel wouldn't budge! All of my dashboard lights were on, including the Check Engine light. At this point, there were cars piling up behind me. With my hazards on, I called 911 (because I was blocking traffic and couldn't move). In the first minute of the call, I decided to try turning the car off and then on again, which did the trick, thankfully. Trust me, the rest of the drive home was a shaky and slow one, but I was glad I was not hurt. Do you know why my car would freeze up like this? Suggestions I've heard are that my car thought it was in an accident so it froze up, or that there is a mechanism in my car that would cause it to freeze when the brakes are really slammed on. Any information would be helpful. Thanks.
Tom: I'd like to come up with some exotic explanation, Sarah -- something about your Highway Speed Reduction Traffic Backup Kill Switch or the like. But all that happened is that your car stalled.
Ray: Right. The key fact is that you skidded a little bit, which means your wheels locked up.
Tom: If you're bopping along on the highway and your wheels are turning at 60 mph, and then suddenly the wheels are going zero mph, the transmission doesn't have time to disengage, and it causes the engine to stall.
Ray: It's as if you were driving a car with a manual transmission and suddenly stopped it without pushing in the clutch pedal.
Tom: Stalling explains every one of your symptoms, Sarah: All the dashboard lights come on when you stall. You lose your power steering and power brakes, and the gas pedal does nothing.
Ray: And how do you fix it? You put the transmission in park or in neutral, turn it off and turn it back on again. Voila!
Tom: So your car is fine. And now you'll know what to do if this ever happens again. It sounds like all you need is a better pair of sunglasses.
(Car Talk is a nationally syndicated column by automotive experts (and brothers) Tom and Ray Magliozzi. Write to them at the Car Talk Web site.)