One moment you are driving down the road, the next moment your brakes fail…your throttle sticks…or a tire blows out. Respond wisely and quickly to automotive emergencies such as these, and there’s an excellent chance that you and your car will escape unharmed.
Unfortunately, drivers’ initial panicked responses often make these situations worse. Even drivers who remain calm sometimes do the wrong thing—the conventional wisdom on how to handle certain driving emergencies is dangerously flawed.
Here are simple and effective strategies for dealing with six worst-case driving scenarios…
A tire comes apart as you drive down the highway. Suddenly it feels as if you are driving on a rumble strip. Many drivers’ first reaction is to slam on the brakes, but doing that is likely to put the car into a spin, making a bad situation much worse.
Response: Hold the steering wheel firmly so that you stay in your lane—the car might try to pull to the side of the blowout—and slowly lift your foot off the accelerator. Keep your steering slow and steady. Then ease your vehicle to the shoulder and coast to a stop. Don’t brake until your speed is below 50 miles per hour.
Exception: If you experience a blowout with a heavily loaded vehicle while going quickly around a sweeping curve, there might be no way to avoid spinning out. If you already are in a spin, slamming on the brakes could be your best option.
Warning: Keep in mind that run-flat tires are not designed to run flat forever. If they are not repaired or replaced soon after going flat, they, too, can blow out. If your car is equipped with run-flats, your vehicle owner’s manual should provide details about how far and fast your run-flats can be safely driven after a flat.
You take your foot off the accelerator, but your car continues to go faster and faster. This could be the result of an electronics issue, though more often the problem is a rusted accelerator pedal hinge or a dislodged floor mat pressing down on the pedal. Whatever the cause, it is one of the most terrifying experiences a driver can have, causing many drivers to freeze up.
Response: Get the car out of gear. If it has a manual transmission, this is easy—simply depress the clutch pedal. If it has an automatic transmission, you will have to shift into neutral. It might take some force to get the shift lever out of gear while the vehicle is moving. The engine will make an ugly over-revving sound when it is taken out of gear, but this can be done and it typically won’t hurt the motor.
If you’re the passenger in a car with a stuck throttle and the driver freezes up, you can reach over and shift the car into neutral yourself.
Meanwhile, brake hard. Brakes alone often are not sufficient to stop a car when its accelerator is stuck, but they can bleed off much of the vehicle’s speed and bring you to a stop once you get the car out of gear.
If the cause of the stuck throttle is not something you can easily diagnose and correct—you can fix an out-of-place floor mat, for example—have the car towed to a mechanic before driving it again.
Warning: Do not turn off the ignition in response to a stuck throttle unless all else fails. This ends the acceleration, but it also turns off the power steering and power-assist braking, rendering the speeding car virtually uncontrollable.
You press down the brake pedal, but your car won’t stop—and you’re rapidly approaching an intersection…stopped traffic…or some other danger.
Response: Pump the brake pedal several times quickly. This should build up hydraulic pressure in the brake line and/or dislodge something that is jammed underneath the pedal.
If that doesn’t work, downshift into increasingly lower-numbered gears if your car has a manual transmission…or shift into “low” if your car has an automatic transmission. The engine will make noises of protest when you downshift, but the damage caused should be minimal.
Meanwhile, gently engage the hand brake (or parking brake) until it is fully engaged, and alert other drivers by using your hazard lights or honking your horn.
Have the vehicle towed to a mechanic unless the problem is easy to identify and correct, such as a bottle lodged under the brake pedal.
If your brakes fail as you descend a steep mountain road, however, brake overheating is probably to blame. Once again, downshift through the gears as described above, and engage the hand brake until it is fully engaged. The hand brake is attached to the car’s rear brakes, which likely are still working well—it is the front brakes that tend to overheat. Do not engage a hand brake abruptly, however, or you could put the car into a slide or spin.
After you come to a stop, let your brakes cool for at least 20 minutes before driving.
Your power steering fails, and suddenly your steering wheel feels extremely heavy. Modern cars are tremendously difficult to turn without power steering.
Response: Use all your strength to maneuver the car to the shoulder or any other safe spot, then park and call for a tow truck. You can brake to reduce speed, but often the steering will get even heavier as the car slows. If you don’t have the strength to steer the car, put on your hazard lights and stop the vehicle.
Better yet, prevent this emergency before it occurs. Power steering usually does not fail all at once—if your car’s steering seems to be becoming heavier, take it to a mechanic as soon as you possibly can.
You’re driving down the highway when suddenly your hood flies open and completely blocks your view…or a rock hits your windshield causing it to spiderweb so badly that you cannot see through it.
Response: If you’re on an open stretch of road with no cars following closely, hold the wheel straight and brake hard. But if you’re on a busy road, slamming on the brakes could cause an accident. Here the best option is to hold the wheel straight, lift your foot off the accelerator, lower your window and stick your head out far enough so that you can see the road ahead. That should provide sufficient visibility to steer the car to a spot where you can park and correct the problem or call for a tow.
You crash off of a road or bridge into deep water. The conventional wisdom is to wait until the car is nearly full of water before trying to open your car door and escape—we’re told that water pressure will pin the doors shut until then—but following that advice could kill you.
Response: Disconnect your seat belt as soon as your car hits the water, unlock the electronic car-door locks and immediately try to force the door open. Urge any passengers to do the same. Cars sometimes float on top of the water for a moment or two before beginning to sink, so it might be possible to push the doors open before external water pressure builds.
If you can’t quickly get your door open to escape, immediately lower your windows and escape that way (if there are passengers in the car, lower their windows, too, if you can do so from the controls on your driver’s door). Electric window controls often fail when cars go into deep water, but they don’t necessarily do so immediately.
If you can’t open the doors or windows, try to break a window. If there is something heavy within reach, such as a steering wheel lock, use that. If not, remove one of the car’s headrests (if the car has removable headrests), jam one of its metal posts into the seam where the window emerges from the door, and then pry upward until the glass shatters. (You may want to keep in your car an emergency escape tool that cuts seat belts and breaks windows, such as LifeHammer. This is available online and at stores that sell auto supplies.)
Only if all of these options fail should you follow the conventional wisdom of trying to open the car door once the car is nearly full of water, equalizing internal and external water pressure. This should be considered the last-ditch option because if it fails, there are no more backup plans—you’ll be out of air.