How To Survive the Top 10 Driving Emergencies


  • Gear Shifter

    Gear Shifter

    If you experience a stuck throttle or runaway engine acceleration, you must quickly put the car in Neutral. If that doesn't work, turn the ignition off. | March 18, 2010

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Third in a three-part series designed to teach you how to successfully handle driving emergencies.

In this final installment, I'll tell you how to react to and recover from common driving mishaps, including dropping two wheels off the road and a front- or rear-tire slide. Although such incidents occur frequently in normal driving situations — especially on roads beset by heavy traffic or hazardous weather conditions — many people don't know what to do in the moment, and the results can be grisly. Your best line of defense is knowledge and experience.

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 countersteering, anticipating the return of rear traction and removing the precise amount of countersteer 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.

Third would be doing the skid-pad course at a performance driving school. Lots of terrific practice under professional guidance, but it's lots of money, too.

On the highway, though, no "Bs" are given for catching a sliding tail: There are either "As" or "Fs."

Here's my recommendation for those who can't get enough practice, to enable them to always perfectly deal with the loss of rear traction: The instant a rear slide makes you say "Oh, shoot" (or similar), pound the brake pedal to the floor and hold it there until the car comes to a complete stop. Then, count to three before proceeding. If you release the brakes before you've come to a complete stop — even if you're traveling but 5 mph — your car is going to go whichever way the tires are pointed, and that may cause you to hit something you just avoided.

Racecar fans have often seen a driver spin out at 175 mph and miraculously miss the wall, but while going no more than 25, release the brakes and smash into the wall or another car. This means the driver lost track of which way the steering wheel was pointed.

If you haven't gotten the message already, each of these tips on how to successfully survive a driving emergency must be practiced to be properly employed. For each, we've offered low- (or no- ) cost tips on how to get some training.

Here's an affordable way to practice most of these tips at once: Car-club autocrosses, also called Solo II. These are low-speed (less than 60 mph) one-car-at-a-time, against-the-clock competitions usually held in parking lots. The only things to hit are plastic traffic cones. Any well-maintained street car is eligible and entry fees are typically less than $50. (Check out the Sports Car Club of America for more.) Some clubs will loan helmets to first-timers and many hold free or low-cost driving schools.

While autocross won't hurt your car other than slightly accelerated brake wear, it will tear up your tires. You could wait until you need new tires to enter an event. To enable my children to practice the tips, I bought a set of "take-off" steel wheels on eBay for $75 and picked up a cheap set of tires.

While not inexpensive, the amount I spent on my teenagers' hands-on education was but a fraction of the cost of bodywork, much less hospital bills. And I sleep better at night with the knowledge that they know how to deal with common driving emergencies.

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