How To Survive the Top 10 Driving Emergencies
19 January 2013 - Edmunds.com, Inc.
Explains how to survive tire failures and stuck throttles. how to make an emergency stop and how to drive around an emergency with the help of ABS. and what to do if you run off the road and will also teach you how to manage sliding front tires or skidding rear tires.
To earn a private pilot's license, one must show proficiency in overcoming emergency situations. But a motorist gets a license by demonstrating little more than a well-executed three-point turn and parallel parking. The first time a typical driver is truly asked to demonstrate accident-avoidance expertise, lives are on the line.
Emergency #1: Tire Blowout
To survive a tire blowout, pretend you're the bad guy in a police chase: Push the gas and drive straight ahead. The shotgun-blast noise of a tire blowout makes most law-abiding drivers do exactly the wrong thing: attempt to slow down quickly and get off the road. With a rear-tire failure, any turning at high speed will likely result in a crash.
I've taught hundreds of drivers how to correctly handle a tire blowout: I sat in the passenger seat and exploded a gaping hole in the tire with plastic explosive. Not one lost control. Here's how they did it.
If a tire blows:
- Squeeze the gas pedal for a couple of seconds. This puts you in control of the car and directs the car straight down the road. It also prevents you from committing the mortal sins of braking and turning. After a couple of seconds, gently and smoothly release the accelerator pedal. The drag force of a completely flat tire is so potent that pushing the gas will not allow the vehicle to go faster.
- Most importantly, drive straight down your lane. Keep your feet away from the brake (or clutch).
- Allow the car to coast down to as slow a speed as is safe (30 mph is good). Engage your turn signal and gently turn toward the shoulder of the road that's on the same side as the blown tire: This lessens your chance of losing control and will make the tire change safer. If the situation requires, you may ever so lightly squeeze the brakes.
Almost all highway blowouts and tread separations occur with the car traveling in a straight line on a very hot day at high speeds with an underinflated tire. The repeated flexing of an underinflated tire causes the failure. Check your tire pressures!
Emergency #2: Tread Separation
Though the recovery techniques are nearly identical, a tread separation is more dangerous than a blowout. This is where the tread rubber and underlying steel belt partially or completely come off the tire. This creates a giant Weed Eater with a blade of steel-backed rubber spinning around at about 1,000 rpm. It'll scythe through the fuel tank, brake lines, inner fender panels, rear seats, side windows and, of course, flesh and bone.
An impending tread separation is usually announced by a consistent thumping noise, which will increase to a slapping sound, and then a metal-tearing jackhammer pounding. Sometimes this process takes days, other times only seconds. If you hear this, immediately slow down and take the tire to a professional for inspection. If you can see damage, put on the spare before proceeding.
If the tread begins to fly off:
- Squeeze the gas pedal for an instant and gently release it.
- Drive straight down your lane.
- Allow the car to coast down as much as is safely possible. You will likely have to apply the brakes lightly in order to reach a safe turning speed.
- Engage your turn signal and smoothly turn toward the shoulder of the road that's on the same side as the damaged tire.
Another reason why tread separations are more dangerous than blowouts: When the tread leaves the tire, the bad noise stops and some people think the car has magically cured itself. But instead of rolling along on grippy rubber, they're riding on fabric. Polyester will offer little grip when they take that next freeway off-ramp.
Emergency #3: Stuck Throttle
Thanks to things like loose floor mats and a poorly placed racecar throttle cable, I have experienced stuck throttles. Although this will be a rare occurrence for most drivers, if your engine starts racing away uncontrollably, it must be stopped immediately.
Take these actions:
- If the engine started racing when you pushed the brake, release the brake. If the engine stops racing, you were actually pushing the gas by mistake.
- Put the transmission in Neutral (and/or push in the clutch). Don't worry about the engine when you shift into Neutral: Engine speed limiters on modern cars will prevent damage. And it's OK if you get Reverse: The engine will either stall or act as if it were in Neutral.
- If you can't get Neutral, switch off the ignition as a last resort. Today's cars don't allow the key to turn to the locked position if the car is not in Park, and the car will be much harder to steer once the engine is off since the power-assist will not be working. Fortunately, with the engine off, there's still plenty of reserve braking power to stop the car. Of course, if the car is equipped with a new fangled keyless ignition, getting Neutral may be your only hope.
If you're a passenger in this situation and the driver fails to act, you can reach over and put the car in Neutral or switch off the engine. But to have any hope of acting properly with a stuck throttle, both driver and passenger must practice first. Find a training partner and an empty parking lot. First practice with the car stopped, just to make sure you know the drill. Move the shift lever from Drive to Neutral. Then turn the key off. Next, restart the car and accelerate to no more than 10 mph, then push the gas pedal to the floor (to simulate a stuck throttle) and hold it there through the rest of the exercise. Immediately, put the car in Neutral and switch off the key. Repeat the process but with the passenger working the shifter and key while you're still in the driver seat. Then, swap seats and repeat.
Emergency #4: Sudden Acceleration
Also called "unintended acceleration," this is identical to a stuck throttle...except it's not a mechanical failure but rather the driver accidentally pressing on the gas. As an instructor, I have had numerous panicked students push the gas in the mistaken, but unshakable, belief they were on the brakes. (Left-foot brakers more familiar with automatics frequently push the clutch.)
Know this: In every well-maintained modern car, the brakes will easily overpower the engine. If you're truly pushing the brakes as hard as you can, the car will stop even with the engine going full speed.
The corrective actions for sudden acceleration and a stuck throttle are identical. Check the list above.
Coach Tom was a stereotypical high school driver's ed teacher. But with one exception: He had a mean streak. When we made a driving mistake, he hit us on the head with a screwdriver handle. While we were driving. When we returned to the classroom, he hit us with a paddle: Imagine a from-the-heels stroke from a guy with biceps better than my leg. While showering after phys ed, everyone knew who'd gotten a Coach Tom whack by the purple streak, punctuated by dots, across their bottoms. The dots were from the holes he drilled in the paddle — to reduce air drag.
Although I've used corporal punishment in my years as a driving instructor, I sometimes think of Coach Tom when I'm teaching students to perform a successful crisis stop. Whether your car has antilock brakes, it's important that you know exactly what to do in an emergency stop situation. Get it right and you'll probably avoid an accident. Get it even a little bit wrong and you'll be getting intimate with another vehicle or a ditch.
Emergency #5: Crisis Stop, Without ABS Without an antilock brake system (ABS), a good emergency stop requires a deft touch. You still must push the brake pedal hard, but not so hard that you skid the tires. Your goal: Be an organic version of ABS and bring the tires to the point they've almost stopped rolling. If they completely stop, grip drops precipitously and you must release brake pressure until the tires start rolling and then reapply brake pressure. Remember, if you lock the brakes, the car will not steer at all. In this situation, many drivers turn the wheel completely to the right or left: If they release the brake before the car comes to a stop, it will dart whichever way the wheels are pointed.
To practice: Find an empty parking lot. Start moving. Now squeeze the brake pedal. Increase the pressure until you hear just the barest hint of tire squeal. It's a "squeal of delight" and signals the tires are very close to their peak grip. But if the tires howl like a dog in pain, they've stopped rolling and grip has dropped. Release and reapply the brakes.
In an actual emergency, if you can't keep a non-ABS car at the squeal-of-delight level, you'll stop quicker with the howling dog-release-howling dog process than if you fail to push the brake pedal hard enough.
Without extensive practice, braking while turning without ABS is like taking a double black diamond ski slope: It can be done well only by those with skill and experience. But it's difficult and expensive: You will tear up tires and you may lose control. Many rental cars lack ABS: You take it from there.
Emergency #6: Crisis Stop With ABS If your car has ABS and you face a road-blocking emergency, here's what you do:
- Stomp the brake pedal to the floor. Kick it as if you're trying to snap it off.
- Stay hard on the pedal until the car comes to a complete stop. Hold the brake pedal to the floor as if you were pinning the head of an angry rattlesnake.
Practice before the actual emergency: Find a dead-end street or an empty parking lot. Start at a low speed, say, 25 mph. Stomp and Stay. The first time, you will almost certainly not push the brake hard enough, nor will you stay on the pedal until the car comes to a complete stop. The complete stop is important. Do it again at higher speeds. Ignore bad noises. Other than slightly accelerated brake and tire wear, you're not hurting the car. (I had one student run off the road because she wouldn't push the brake pedal hard enough: "I was afraid of skidding," she said. "You'd rather crash than skid?" I asked. Where's Tom's screwdriver?)
Emergency #7: Accident Avoidance Maneuvers Using ABS There's a third "S" that goes with ABS's "Stomp and Stay." It's Steer (around the obstacle). One of the great benefits of ABS is that it allows you to steer even while pushing hard on the brake. In radically oversimplified terms, it transfers a little bit of the tire's braking power into turning potential.
But a little bit of steering goes a very long way, and many drivers way overdo this part. I've had numerous students turn the wheel completely in one direction. The problem is that the instant the driver releases the brake pedal, the front tires are relieved of their braking duties and have 100 percent cornering power available, which sends the car into oncoming traffic or off the road.
Here's your parking lot practice mission: Set up a row of water-filled plastic soda bottles perpendicular to your path. If you have ABS, stomp the pedal to the floor, stay hard on the pedal and try to steer around them. It's simple and fun as well.
Emergency #8: Dropping Two Wheels off the Road This should be the easiest to handle of the 10 emergency situations, yet it results in a large number of fatalities each year. The answer is as easy as this: If you drop two wheels off the road, don't be in a hurry to get back on the pavement.
- Smoothly remove pressure from the gas pedal. Stay away from the brake pedal unless it can't be avoided (e.g., if you're headed downhill or there's an upcoming obstacle). Here's where ABS would be worth its weight in hundred-dollar bills.
- Drive parallel to the road: Allow the car to coast down to, say, 35 or 40 mph.
- Gently turn the wheel a very small amount: If you have to turn more than 5 degrees, you're going too fast. Let the car slow down more.
- If you face an obstacle, brake harder but don't try to reenter with more than 15 degrees of steering. The reason: If you have to turn the wheel, say, 45 or 60 degrees to get back on the pavement, the front tires will fully regain traction before the rears and either you'll spin out — likely hitting what you were trying to avoid — or shoot across the road into other traffic.
I once ran completely off a racetrack at 110 mph in an important turn. I straightened the steering up and allowed the car to slow down a bit. And I eased it back over onto the pavement. That mistake could have been tragic, but instead it cost me less than one second.
Even the curves you'll find on interstate highways need only the grip from two tires to stay firmly planted on the road.
Emergency #9 Front-Tire Slide Manufacturers work hard to make their cars lose front traction before rear grip. When front tires lose grip, most drivers' natural reaction is the correct reaction; that is:
- Say "Oh, fudge" (or similar) and have your adrenal gland increase your heart rate.
- Remove your foot from the gas pedal (and stay away from the brake pedal).
- Leave your hands where they are. More steering won't help and might hurt.
- Wait for the traction to return.
- Pray that the grip comes back before you get to the trees or concrete barriers.
Turning the wheel more or stepping on the brake is like writing additional checks from an already overdrawn account: You're already asking for more grip than the tires can provide. But something bad can happen if you turn the wheel more and the traction suddenly returns. Let's say it was a narrow strip of ice. On the other side of the ice, the road is barely even damp. The tires now have plenty of grip. And they think you just asked them to make a very hard left into oncoming traffic. "Yes, sir!"
Emergency #10: Rear-Tire Slide Words can no more teach you how to catch a rear-tire slide (stock car drivers call it "loose") than videos can teach you how to hit a curveball. Unlike a front-tire slide, you cannot successfully react to a rear-tire slide; you must anticipate it. If you don't anticipate it, you will spin out.
Then, you must act appropriately, putting in the correct amount of counter steering, anticipating the return of rear traction and removing the precise amount of counter steer at the correct rate. In driver's ed, Coach told you to turn in the direction of the skid. Did he ever say that at some point you've got to unwind the steering? Didn't think so.
There are a few moderate-cost ways to learn how to catch a sliding tail. The biggest bang for the buck is the "slick track" go-kart tracks found at many fun parks. The next step up is the indoor kart tracks found in most metro areas. When you're among the fastest drivers around the track, you're probably adequate when it comes to catching a rear-tire slide. A rear-drive car and a snow-covered parking lot also offer potential for practice — along with an equal chance for the cops to come visiting.