To earn a private pilot's license, a student has to show proficiency in overcoming basic urgent and emergency situations. But to get a driver license, a motorist need only demonstrate a clumsy three-point turn and a ham-fisted attempt at parallel parking. Some states don't even require that. The first time that drivers are asked to demonstrate their accident-avoidance skills, lives may be on the line. Without knowledge and practice, the odds are not in their favor.
I first learned about the basic skills required to turn emergency driving situations into non-events from car magazines and Piero Taruffi's 1959 book, The Technique of Motor Racing. I honed those techniques as a racecar driver, vehicle and tire tester and holder of a commercial driver license (for driving big rigs).
From all that experience, I've distilled these tips for you. To make them life savers, though, you'll need practice. Good practice areas include under-construction subdivisions after working hours, parking lots of derelict stores and dead-end roads. Use common sense, keep speeds under 35 mph and limit practice to 15 minutes per session.
Emergency 1: The Accident You Don't See Coming
The best way to survive an accident is not to get into one. Start by accepting responsibility for everything that happens when you're in the driver seat. If there's a wreck, you are not an accident victim, but instead an accident participant. It is your job, therefore, to avoid red-light runners, an oncoming driver making a left turn in front of you, sudden freeway jam-ups and those drivers who are composing text messages as they travel the freeway.
See problems before they become emergencies by looking far ahead, while using your peripheral vision to keep position in your lane. Here's how to ensure that you're looking far enough ahead: Use a dry-erase marker to draw a horizontal line on your windshield that crosses just under your pupils. On level ground, you should rarely look below that line. In tight traffic, look through the windshield of the vehicle ahead, or position your car a few inches to that driver's left to see brake lights ahead of him.
Process what you see. When the brake lights of all the cars ahead of you flash, something is happening ahead. Slow down.
Emergency 2: "Invisible" Pedestrians, Motorcycles and Small Vehicles
Approximately 36 percent of crashes involved a vehicle that was turning or crossing an intersection, according to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Because today's cars often have thick roof pillars to hold side curtain airbags, it's a lot harder to spot small cars, motorcycles and pedestrians that are about to cross your path than it used to be. So before you turn the steering wheel, look where you want to go. Remember this mnemonic: BLT, which in this case stands for brake, look and turn. This often means looking through the side windows. For U-turns, it requires looking through the rear passenger window. Even if you're travelling straight, a quick glance through the side glass before you cross an intersection will reveal red-light runners and stop-sign skippers.
Emergency 3: Panic Stops
Imagine the freeway is completely blocked. A big rig has spilled its load, a motorist has run out of fuel in the middle lane of rush-hour traffic or a herd of mule deer is crossing I-70 in Utah. You must stop NOW. If your vehicle has computer-controlled antilock braking systems (ABS), all you need do is stomp, stay and, if necessary, steer. You will stop in an unbelievably short distance. Beginning with the 2012 model year, new passenger vehicles have been required to have electronic stability control (ESC), a system that includes ABS as a key component. And about half of 15-year-old cars are equipped with ABS, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
To properly use ABS, stomp on the brake pedal as if you'd win $1 million if you break it off. Use no finesse: Pound it to the floor. Next, stay hard on the pedal until the car comes to a complete stop. Ignore nasty noises or a pulsating brake pedal. That's ABS doing its job. After a half-dozen stops, a 15-year-old on a permit can stop the car as quickly as the best race driver on the planet.
But you must practice. That's because there's a problem in ABS's organic software: the driver. If people are not trained, they don't use ABS properly. (An important note: If your car was built before 2012, make certain it has ABS before you stomp the pedal. Watch the warning lights when you start the vehicle for one that says "ABS.")
One last word on panic stops: If the situation calls for emergency braking, don't worry about the vehicle behind you. If you hit the car in front of you, you get the ticket and may get sued. If the car behind hits you, he gets the ticket.
Emergency 4: Accident Avoidance With ABS
One of the beauties of ABS is that it allows steering during hard braking. But this can create serious problems if you do it improperly. A quick technical note explains why: Tires produce their best stopping force when pointed straight ahead. Without ABS, turning while braking hard will cause the tires to stop rolling. That reduces the stopping power and there's absolutely no turning ability. With ABS, the computer allows some of that stopping force to be traded for cornering power.
Here's the problem, however. Many drivers will pound the brake and steer — to miss a deer, for example. They then release the brake pressure with the wheels still turned. With the request for braking removed, the tires are now free to produce maximum cornering power, so the car darts right and hits a second deer — and a tree. That's why you practice centering the wheel before releasing brake pressure.
Emergency 5: Running off the Road
About a quarter of fatal crashes are single-vehicle accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Of those, about 70 percent happen when drivers run two wheels off the pavement and, in a panic, over-correct. This causes the vehicle to spin off the highway and flip, or dart into oncoming traffic. The sad part is that almost all of these accidents could be avoided if the driver just kept calm and drove on.
If you find yourself with two wheels off the road, release the accelerator, keep the steering wheel straight, allow the vehicle to slow on its own and smoothly steer back on the road. If you do it properly, passengers won't even notice your hands moving. It's best to stay away from the brake pedal, but it's OK to use ABS if all four wheels are about to go off the roadway or you're about to hit something harder than a country mailbox. Be sure to center the wheel before you release the brake.
Emergency 6: Tire Blowout
To survive a tire blowout, pretend you're the bad guy in a police chase and you've just run over the cops' spike strips. Push the accelerator (for a moment) and drive straight ahead. The shotgun-blast noise of a tire blowout makes most law-abiding drivers do exactly the wrong thing. They 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 spin and a devastating crash.
When I trained drivers in emergency techniques, hundreds of them correctly handled a tire blowout while I sat in the passenger seat and pressed the detonator to ignite a plastic explosive that blew a gaping hole in the tire. Not one driver lost control. You can be that calm, too.
Pressing the accelerator for an instant will give you time to collect your wits. You'll remember to drive straight down your lane and to stay away from the brake pedal. Allow the car to coast down to slow and then gently pull onto the shoulder. The car will not gain speed no matter how long you press the accelerator. The drag force of a completely flat tire is that potent.
Almost all highway blowouts and tread separations occur on hot days with the car traveling in a straight line at high speed on an underinflated tire or tires. The repeated flexing of an underinflated tire causes the failure. Check your tire pressures and you won't have to deal with blowouts.
Emergency 7: Over-Reactive Steering
In an urgent situation, your goal is to move the steering wheel rapidly but smoothly. Jerking the wheel may cause your tires to lose traction. If rough steering causes the rear tires to lose traction, you might go for a spin. Turning the same amount but doing so smoothly will introduce the tires to the request for cornering force and avoid overwhelming them.
Here's an example of why you don't want to be a steering jerk: On a recent rainy evening in the mountains of Virginia, I suddenly came upon a truck tire tread in my lane. The dark, water-filled wagon-wheel ruts were perfect camouflage for the giant black road gator. I calmly and smoothly turned the wheel just enough to miss 80 pounds of steel-reinforced rubber, paused an instant to allow the tires to regain full grip, and then smoothly turned right to return to my lane. If I had snapped the wheel back and forth, there's a good chance I would have wound up in the ditch.
Emergency 8: Stuck Throttles and Sudden Acceleration
Thanks to things like loose floor mats and a poorly placed racecar throttle cable, I have experienced stuck throttles. If your engine starts racing away uncontrollably, you must stop it immediately. If the car started accelerating when you pushed the brake, release that pedal. If the engine stops screaming, you were actually pushing the throttle. Now try pushing the pedal to its left. If that doesn't stop the vehicle, slap the transmission into Neutral. Don't worry about inadvertently shifting into Reverse. Most modern vehicles will not allow you to do that without manipulating a button on the shift lever. And if you do manage to get to Reverse, the computer in the transmission of all modern vehicles will reject your request. As a very last resort, turn off the ignition.
While taking these actions, press the brake as hard as you can. In every well-maintained modern car, the brakes easily overpower the engine, even if the transmission downshifts a gear or two. If you're truly pushing the brake as hard as you can, the car will stop, even with the engine going full speed. However, the brakes can't beat the engine forever and people with physical problems may not be able to maintain adequate brake pressure, so select Neutral and turn off the ignition.
Emergency 9: Front-Tire Slide
When front tires lose grip, most drivers' natural reaction is the correct reaction:
- Say "Oh, shoot" (or similar).
- Remove your foot from the gas pedal.
- 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 checks from an overdrawn account. You're already asking for more grip than the tires can provide.
Emergency 10: Rear-Tire Slide
Words can't teach you to hit a curveball. And they can't tell you how to catch a rear-tire slide, which stock car drivers call "loose" and engineers call "oversteer." Unlike a front-tire slide, you cannot successfully react to a rear-tire slide. You must anticipate it.
Electronic stability control (ESC) is making the ability to catch a slide as obsolete as being able to rapid-fire a muzzle-loading musket. But ESC can still use your help. Make sure your tires have adequate tread depth and are properly inflated. The tires with the deepest tread should be on the rear. Know that ESC does not offer diplomatic immunity from the laws of physics. If you enter a 30-mph turn at 60, you're going to crash, ESC or not.
If your vehicle lacks ESC, 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 amusement parks. For a few dollars more, try the indoor kart tracks found in most metro areas.
Building Your Skills
An affordable way to practice many of these emergency-driving tips at once is to participate in car-club autocrosses, also called Solo. 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, but your tires will take a beating. Any well-maintained car is eligible and entry fees are typically around $50. (Check out the Sports Car Club of America for more.) Some clubs loan helmets to first-timers and many hold free or low-cost driving schools. Advanced driving training courses also include practice in emergency braking and time on skid pads, to practice recovering from front- and rear-tire slides.