4 different mechanic shops couldn't solve this puzzle! Can you? Desperate... ;)

Calling all car wizards! I have a challenge for you.
I’ve had this car in to four different mechanics and none have been able to decisively determine the problem in order to fix it, mostly because the car will not die in front of them. Money is a big issue so the “shotgun” approach to fixing it is not an option.
Here is the situation:
My 98 Honda Accord LX hesitates while driving and will stop (so far only) at low speeds (under 35mph). It also occasionally has trouble starting. This problem is most prevalent after driving a long distance (I do a 180 mile trip once a week, always happens that night after I get back to town). Usually the shut down is accompanied by or preceded by (chicken or the egg) the key light and the maintenance required light. The battery continues to run but it loses power. When I turn it on again it turns over but immediately dies. So far I have always been able to get it started after a few tries but only if I push the gas pedal to the floor. It is as if something “clicks” and it is suddenly getting gas again. So far this has only happened in town but I am concerned that it may happen at 60 mph, which would be a dangerous situation! It has been suggested that the problem is in the antitheft system (which makes no sense if I am already driving it), in the distributor cap, or the ignition switch, but none of these fully explain the symptoms.

So, my dear mechanical wizards, display your genius! Impress me and your fellow car talk comrades by solving this puzzle! (And help me keep my job out of town!!!).


Dying could be due to many things so one guess may be as good as any other.

You say you can start it again by pushing the pedal to the floor. That could be an indication that the car is flooded - in other words, it is getting too much gas or one/more of the fuel injectors is weeping gas into the cylinder. Jamming the pedal to the floor is a ‘limp’ mode to override that condition. I think on Hondas a ‘pedal to the floor’ actually shuts off the injectors, not allowing gas into the cylinder and thus clearing the flooded condition.
If your fuel pressure is too high or one injector is weeping into the cylinder, it would cause it to run badly at lower speeds and possibly stall.

Can you tell us what they’ve looked at? Did they check your fuel pressure? Did your gas mileage decrease drastically recently?

Has the cars computer been scanned for trouble codes? You mentioned that sometimes the “maintenance required” light comes just before the engine quits…There may be something in the computers memory related to that…Have your alternator tested for A/C ripple. Computers don’t like that at all…Do all the simple, cheap things first including removing and cleaning the battery connections…Good Luck…

 "Usually the shut down is accompanied by or preceded by (chicken or the egg) the key light and the maintenance required light." 

Hold on there. Are you really sure you are looking at a "Maintenance required light??? I could go for a check engine light (CEL) but not a maintenance light.

Assuming you really are talking about a CEL, then That CEL (check engine light) is just a kid in class waving her hand trying to get you attention because she has the answer. You need to have the codes read. Some places will read them for FREE. Try Autozone or Advanced Auto Parts. Get the exact code (like P0123) not just their translation into English and post it back here.

Personally, I’d be looking at the fuel pump, relay, or pump pressure. I think the lights are a red herring but all they have to do is scan the computer to see if there is a code in there or not. Fuel pumps can be very erratic.

I have to say that I am leaning towards the key/security system being the issue. I work at a Honda dealership and it does happen. Where the computer will occasionally “forget” the key that is coded to it. This would cause all of the symptoms you are describing. Its the “Key Light” that is the biggest clue there, it may just need to have the key re-taught to the computer, or it may need to have the key replaced and then re-taught. It could be a failing immobilizer as well. Unfortunately I can tell you that the dealership will just shot gun you the parts and hope for the best as there is no way to really test this unless it happens right in front of them. The ONLY thing you can do is carry a spare key, and if this happens again quickly change keys in the ignition and see if the car fires up right away. OR if you have a different key try using that and see if the problem even comes back at all (if it does not the 1st key is bad)

I’ve never had a Honda or had any dealings with them, but could it be that disconnecting the battery and reconnecting it to reset the computer and allow the engine to relearn all the correct running perimeters might help??

Whatever you do only one thing at a time so when you do fix it you’ll know what to do if it ever does it again.

@gsragtop: Thank you! You are not the first to say it might be the key itself. The key is a little bent, but it was the only one I was given when I was sold the car. I took it to a key maker who said because of the chip it would cost $60 to replace. Is there any way to test whether it is the key without actually replacing the key? I noticed that I sometimes have to jiggle it a little to open the door, but that seems to be more of the bend in the metal rather than the chip, which is what I think you are suggesting the problem is.

@FordMan1959 One of the mechanics I took it to said that the battery posts were bad and replaced them. I am assuming that would do the same thing…

@JosephEMeehan. No, I mean the maintenance required light. The check engine light also comes on occassionally, and has been tested. The computer code indicates there is a problem with the catalytic converter, such that the sensors are indicating too many emissions. I am told that would not cause the problem. My understanding is the maintenance required light is just to indicate that an oil change is needed, which is indeed confusing because the other lights (with the exception of the key light) do not come on preceding the shut down. However it may be important to note that I didn’t start having this problem until the day after I had my oil changed at Jiffy Lube. I’ve often wondered if they didn’t screw something up there, but can’t figure out what that could be.

@ All: Another clue I forgot to mention before: it seems to do this when the heater has been on for a while, although it is not a 100% correlation so I’m not sure if I’m just inventing “symptoms” in my search for an explanation or if there really is anything going on with the heater. I’ve noticed an acrid smell lately coming from the heater, especially when I first start the car. I’ve been told these things are unrelated.

This has come up before for other problems, it may affect you as well. Do you have a lot of stuff attached to the key ring, so that it is heavy? If so, try putting you car key on its own key ring so there isn’t any weight pulling on the key as you are driving down the road.

When was the last time the fuel filter was replaced?

I’m going with RagTop…The key light coming on IS the clue…The computer is not getting a proper signal from the key…It does not recognize it as being properly inserted, so it turns the light on waiting for you to insert the key…You should have a spare key anyway, so spend the bucks and have one made. And don’t hang a big wad of stuff on that key…

Sounds to me like you are having electrical issues… When was your last tuneup? Spark plugs, Distributor Cap and rotor, Air filter etc…?

If she hesitates while you are driving then this could be due to leaking spark plug wires…It would also help it to die at a stop.

I am thinking you have worn or weak plugs…that easily get flooded out by fuel bec they aren’t sparking hot enough…Before I ramble on about all of this PLEASE tell us when the last FULL tuneup was done…its important.

The key light issue is also rather important…but any issue related to the key and security would NOT make the vehicle run erratically…or hesitate… It would simply shut you down… It would not cause driveablilty issues. Really need to know that tune up info please…then we can go forward.


“Usually the shut down is accompanied by or preceded by (chicken or the egg) the key light and the maintenance required light.”

You have to start somewhere…

I hear you Caddy…and I don’t discount the key light and what can occur when the key is an issue…I am just saying that the key IF that was triggered or not…would NOT ever cause poor driveability issues…like hesitation… Don’t you agree?

There may be more than one problem…Computers can create problems when otherwise nothing is wrong…A bad or weak diode in an alternator can allow enough A/C ripple in the electrical system to cause everything to go bonkers at a certain RPM…I have been led down the primrose path many times, chasing ghosts for hours and hours…People like Lisa B, far removed from the world of automotive design and repair are at the mercy of repair shops who must resort to the “replace it and see what happens” method of auto-repair…With no standardization of automotive engine controls, repairing them has turned into a real crap-shoot…

Your car is under a Recall for the ignition switch which is prone to electrical failure and can cause the problems your car is suffering. If this Recall has not been performed previously you can have it done at any Honda dealer free of charge.

An engine that dies abruptly at idle or low RPMs after deceleration could be doing so because of an Idle Air Control valve problem but a failing switch combined with lower RPMs and alternator output could also be causing a funky voltage drop over the switch so do the switch first.

In spite of the Honda infallibility legend, there are a number of other existing Recalls on your car including the ignitition switch interlock hiccup, exterior lighting, ball joint recall, etc, etc.
If you have the switch Recall done then ask that all of the others be done en masse. They’re free so take advantage of it.

Well done.

While you are at the dealership getting the recalls that OK talks about (PS you can call 1st and see if your car has had them done already or not, or send me the VIN and I can have my shop run the VIN for you). Have a new key made up from your VIN, NOT FROM YOUR EXSITING KEY… This way you get a nice clean fresh key with full detent details, that might cost you a little to get but as Caddy says an extra key is a good thing.

Will a bad key, keyswitch or rfid* chip/reader cause the car to stall only under 35, as mentioned?
Unless that statement was a red herring, of course, I doubt it.
If you’re entitled to that related update, go for it, but it may not necessarily fix your problem.
Just be careful that they don’t try to fix the problem, after they’ve performed all the updates. A dealer very often will use the shotgun approach but maybe that’s what’s needed, in this case.

*I take it a 98 has RFID? Not sure.

Some hardware stores now are equipped to make chip keys. These keys have a replaceable battery, seem to work, and are about 1/2 or less from a dealership made key. The OP is living dangerously with just one key! Get another key made for the car, now. If you lose the current key you will find it very expensive to get your car moving again.

Next, I think the current chip key is failing. Likely heat is affecting it in some way. Hence another reason to get a new key made before it fails completely. The duplicate making systems need to read the old key to program the correct code into the new replacement key.

If you have a second car and keep chip keys for two cars on the same key ring that will cause problems with some theft security systems. Put keys on separate key rings to keep the security systems from reading the wrong key and disableing the car.