If only real life were like a driver's ed test. Think about it: you could be driving along when you hear a loud bang. Everything slows down, and on your windshield you'd see a question straight out of a driver's ed textbook, complete with multiple-choice answers.
Unfortunately, life on the road isn't like driver's ed. As drivers we all have to make split-second life-or-death decisions. And, you may not remember all you should from your long ago driver's ed class. "Driver education is a lifetime process," says Dr. Bill Van Tassel, the national manager of driver safety programs for AAA. It's up to all drivers to learn the proper response to common -- and not-so-common -- emergencies that can happen on the road.
"If a car can't start, that's an annoyance," says Dr. Van Tassel. But, "a car that can't stop is a major safety concern." Brake failure is one of those nightmare situations that every driver dreads, but few prepare for. The first sign of brake failure is the loss of resistance on the brake pedal. Rather than pushing up against your foot, the pedal will easily move all the way to the floor. If that happens, your first instinct may be to continue to press the pedal to the floor, but that's not what you should be doing.
"Give the brake pedal a couple of pumps," says Van Tassel. Doing so will help determine if there is any hydraulic fluid left in the braking system. After pumping the brake pedal a few times, you may begin to feel some resistance, which means you may have enough fluid to stop the car.
However, if you don't feel any resistance, you need to find another way to safely slow down the car. Dr. Van Tassel says you should take your foot off the gas and downshift into a lower gear and let the slower engine revolutions slow the car (that method is called engine braking, and it's what a lot of truckers do to keep their brakes from overheating when they're hauling loads through hilly areas).
While it's easiest to downshift in a car with a manual transmission or an automatic with a manual mode, you can still downshift in a car with an automatic transmission. In addition to park, neutral, reverse, and drive, most automatics also have first or second gear labeled on the shift column (they're the "1" and "2" you probably never use).
Even if pumping the brakes and downshifting don't work, Van Tassel says keeping your eyes on the road and looking for a clear path and place to stop is key. If you can, use your flashers and horn to warn others to stay clear of you. And, if nothing is slowing your car, you can try scraping it against something like a guardrail or wall to slow it. "This sacrifices the car, but saves you and your passengers," Van Tassel notes. After all, "the car is replaceable. You aren't." However, it should only be done in extreme cases where you've exhausted all other ways of slowing the car. Finally, once you get the car stopped, turn it off and call for help. Don't drive it again until the problem with the brakes is fixed.
Unintended acceleration is all over the news lately, so it's no wonder it's on a lot of drivers' minds. While it's extremely rare, most drivers should know what to do if they experience it.
As in the case of brake failure, Dr. Van Tassel recommends that drivers experiencing unintended acceleration keep their eyes up and attempt to find the clearest path down the road or to safety. At the first sign of unintended acceleration, firmly apply the brakes. "Today's brakes are very powerful, and that is usually enough to stop the car," Van Tassel notes.
If applying the brakes in a firm, sustained manner doesn't slow the car, shift into neutral and coast to a safe spot. What's key, Van Tassel says, is that you keep the engine on until you stop. If you turn off the engine, you'll lose power brakes and steering -- and in some cases turning off the car will lock the steering wheel. After you coast to a safe spot, turn the car off and call for help. Don't drive the car again until the problem is fixed.
To get comfortable with shifting into neutral while the car is moving, or downshifting in the case of brake failure, you should find a place where you can practice these maneuvers. "We recommend low-risk, low-speed practice," says Van Tassel. So find a large, empty parking lot, accelerate to 15 miles per hour or so, and practice shifting while the car is moving until you get the hang of it. That way, if you encounter brake failure or unintended acceleration, you'll be better prepared.
A Blown Tire
A tire blowout can be incredibly unnerving. The sound is sudden and scary. And, Dr. Van Tassel notes, when a tire blows out, "steering will change. [The car] will be hard to steer and may pull hard to one side."
Most drivers' first instinct will be to apply the brakes. But that's wrong. Dr. Van Tassel says that when faced with a blowout, you should "stay off the brakes. [Applying them] can actually make things worse." Instead, you should "concentrate on getting control." That means keeping your eyes on the road and finding a safe path, as well as maintaining a firm grip on the steering wheel and easing off the gas. When you've coasted to a safe place and slowed to 15 to 20 miles an hour or so, then gently apply the brakes. When you've stopped, turn off the car, and if you aren't comfortable changing the tire yourself, call for help.
While the other three life-threatening situations are usually due to mechanical problems, Dr. Van Tassel says a skid is “usually the result of a driver failing to adapt to road conditions." While most driving is done on dry pavement, Van Tassel points out that in the rain, traction can be reduced by 30 percent. In order to maintain the same level of traction on wet roads as you get on dry, you then need to reduce your speed by 30 percent. But most drivers don't do that.
However, even if you've reduced your speed, a skid can still occur. And you need to know how to respond.
The first step is to stay calm and keep your eyes on a clear path of travel -- that's where you want to go. "Drivers tend to look at things they don't want to hit," says Van Tassel. Unfortunately, the car tends to go wherever the driver is looking. So, Van Tassel recommends looking "at the space between the telephone poles, instead of at the telephone poles." That way, you're more likely to avoid hitting them.
When you feel your car lose traction, don't slam on the brakes. "If you've lost traction on your rear wheels, applying the brakes shifts the car's weight to the front wheels," says Van Tassel. That means you then have even less traction on the rear wheels, which can compound the skid.
Instead, take your foot off the gas, and look and steer where you want to go. You may remember your driver's ed teacher telling you to initially steer in the direction of the skid, but Van Tassel says that AAA has found that focusing on where you want to go is easier for most drivers to do. "Steering into a skid is still good advice," Van Tassel says, "but keeping your focus forward is easier."
Above all, if you're in a skid, don't give up. "There's always something you can do to regain traction," Van Tassel says. "As long as you're looking where you want to go, your hands will [steer the car] toward that."