How To Survive the Top 10 Driving Emergencies
Second in a three-part series designed to teach you how to successfully handle driving emergencies.
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.
Look for Part 3, which covers running off the road, front skids and rear slides. (Don't make me hit you with this screwdriver!)