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Chapter 9 - Driving Emergencies



Driving on the roads of New York requires attentiveness, skill, a vehicle that is responsive, a little luck, and a subconscious mind that can quickly react. When an emergency occurs on the road, the decision to act must be a split-second one, and you must know instinctively what to do. The single most important rule in any emergency is: don't panic. You have a better chance of handling the emergency safely if you don't let fear take over. In most emergencies, you will have a second or two to think before you act.

When seeking an escape route, seek the path of least resistance. The path of least resistance in any situation, whether it be a head-on collision, side impact collision, or swerving to avoid an emergency, is the escape route that, if followed, will decrease the risk of injury and damage to the drivers and vehicles involved. When you have an emergency, the path of least resistance will be the route where you can minimize the risk caused by your vehicle.

Here are some things you can do in various emergency driving situations:

Wrong Way Drivers

Photograph of a train about to collide with a car

If your vehicle stalls on railroad tracks and a train is coming, you need to get out immediately.

The goal when facing a vehicle approaching head-on in your lane is to take evasive action as quickly as possible. Waiting until the last second to initiate a maneuver rarely gives you enough time to avoid a collision. The worst that can happen with an early evasive move is a sideswipe or a rear-end collision, but that will help you avoid the more dangerous head-on collision.

In order to minimize the chance of a collision, you should slow down as quickly as possible, pull over to the right, flash the headlights and sound the horn. Don't swing over to the left lane because the other driver may suddenly recover and pull back there also.

Stalling on Railroad Tracks

As discussed in chapter 4, if your vehicle stalls on railroad tracks and a train is coming, you need to get out immediately. Unfasten your seat belt and run towards the train at an angle (about 45 degrees) away from the tracks. If you run in the same direction the train is moving, you may be hit by debris when the train hits your vehicle. Never try to move your vehicle out of the way if it stalls on the tracks. If you are absolutely sure no trains are approaching nearby, open your window so you can listen for any that may approach. Try to start the engine. If that does not work, shift to neutral and push your vehicle off the tracks.

Going into Water

Photograph of a Flooded sign

Warning signs or barricades placed because of water on the road are there for your safety.

If you run into deep water and your vehicle stalls, it should still float for a while and give you time to get out before it starts sinking. Unfasten your seat belt and escape through an opened window. Do not open the door as that may cause water to rush in, which may cause the car to turn over on top of you. If the vehicle sinks before you can get out, wait until the pressure equalizes before you try and open a window or door. First get into the back seat where air pockets usually form and kick out the back window. This window is designed to come off fairly easily. As you rise, air pressure will build in your lungs. Let air out in small breaths through your nose or mouth as you surface. Don't hold your breath tightly or try to blow air out. Just allow the air to escape naturally.

Remember that if you see warning signs or barricades that are placed because of water on the road, you must obey them as they are placed for your safety.

Hot Wires

Vehicles often make contact with hot electrical wires by:

  • Crashing into electrical poles, causing the wires to fall on the car.
  • Driving into hot wires that are either laying on the road or hanging low.

Safety tips

If you should crash into an electrical pole and hot wires fall on the car or are laying nearby:

  • Stay inside your car and wait until help arrives. If you touch the car and the ground at the same time (such as when you step out of your car), you will be electrocuted.
  • Wait until help arrives and the wires are removed.
  • Do not allow anyone to approach the car or touch it.
  • If you must touch anything, touch it with the back of your hand. If you use the inside of your hand and there is a current, it will cause the hand muscles to contract and to clench.

If the car should catch on fire, forcing you to evacuate, then:

  1. Open the door.
  2. Crouch low in the opened door.
  3. Jump as far as possible from the car.
  4. Land on both feet.
  5. Hop on both feet and move as far away from the vehicle as possible. DO NOT stumble back and make contact with your car.
Vehicle Catches Fire

Photograph of a car on fire

If you experience a vehicle fire, pull over, exit immediately, and stay at a safe distance.

Fires that start in vehicles are usually caused by faults in the electrical system or leakage in the fuel system. If you see smoke or flames anywhere in your vehicle while you are driving:

  1. Steer off the road immediately to an open area away from people, traffic and buildings.
  2. Turn off the ignition to cut the electrical power to the engine.
  3. Everybody should immediately get out of the car and move as far away from it as possible.
  4. Assess the situation to determine the severity of the fire. Deal with it only if it is a small fire and you have a fire extinguisher. Otherwise get away from the vehicle.
    1. If you can deal with the fire, use a rag to protect your hands when opening the hood.
    2. Turn the fire extinguisher directly on the location of the fire. REMEMBER: Water does not work on oil or fuel fires.
    3. Wait for help to arrive. Never work under the hood while the engine compartment is hot.

Off-Road Recovery

In the following situations, you may be forced to pull over to the side of the road. Once you are able to resolve whatever the trouble is, you will have to start getting back to the roadway. Ways to deal with these situations are discussed below.

Recovering from a Skid

Photograph of an intersection with skid marks

An out-of-control skid is caused when the vehicle's tires lose contact with the road.

An out-of-control skid is caused when the vehicle's tires lose contact with the road. In a skid, the back wheels of the vehicle are the ones actually skidding, with the front tires following. If you start to skid, you must turn the steering wheel in the direction the back wheels are skidding, or in other words, steer the vehicle in your intended direction. Your goal is to regain traction with the road surface.

To recover from any type of skid:

  • Take your foot off the gas immediately.
  • Don't slam on the brakes. If your vehicle is equipped with antilock brakes, see below.
  • Turn the steering wheel in the direction of the skid.

Using Antilock Brakes (ABS)

Many vehicles, though not all, have antilock braking systems. These can help to minimize the chances of crashing, but only if they are used properly. Pumping the brakes in a vehicle equipped with ABS will be a wasted effort. To use ABS properly in situations that normally call for you to pump the brakes, you must press down on the brake pedal as firmly as possible and keep it down. This will activate the system, which will pump the brakes automatically and continue as long as you maintain pressure on the brake pedal. When you are skidding and have activated the ABS properly, just steer in the direction of the skid.

When the ABS is activated, you may feel some pulsing in the brake pedal, almost as if it were pushing back at you. You may also hear a clicking sound. These are not signs of trouble but are indications that your ABS brakes are working.

Running off the Pavement

When you run off the pavement, you will probably lose some traction. In this situation, you need to:

  1. Grip the steering wheel firmly and keep your car moving straight ahead. Take your foot off the gas while you do this.
  2. Brake carefully. Don't hit the brakes hard because that may cause you to skid.
  3. Don't try to swing back onto the pavement.
  4. After you have slowed down, turn your wheel and signal. When traffic is clear, drive carefully onto the pavement. Look for a place where the shoulder is near the level of the roadway.

Mechanical Emergencies

Regular maintenance of your vehicle will help prevent most vehicle breakdowns. However, even a well-maintained vehicle can run into the occasional problem, so you need to be able to handle vehicular emergencies quickly. Following are some common emergency driving situations and how to respond:

Flat Tire or Blowout

Photograph of a car with a blown out tire

A tire blowout occurs suddenly.

A flat tire may occur slowly, while a blowout to the tire occurs suddenly. You can normally feel a tire give way as you hold the steering wheel, and you may also hear it or feel a part of your vehicle dip. Under-inflated tires undermine your control of the vehicle, and over-inflated tires are susceptible to road hazards such as potholes. If you experience a flat tire or blowout:

  1. Grip the steering wheel firmly so you can stay in control of the vehicle.
  2. Slow down by gradually taking your foot off the gas. Pull off the road to an area where it is safe. Be sure to signal if you must change lanes.
  3. Gently apply the brakes once you are off the road.
  4. Steer straight ahead and stop.
  5. You can call for help or change the tire yourself. Change the tire on even ground, and only when doing so does not put you in danger.
Loss of a Wheel

The loss of a wheel is similar to a blowout. The warning signs are often the same: a thumping noise and/or a pulling to the side where the wheel has broken loose. The basic rules for regaining control with the loss of a wheel are the same as for a tire blowout.

Brake Failure

If your brakes fail, what you need to do depends on what kind of brakes you have. When you experience brake failure, follow these tips:

  1. Don't panic!
  2. Know what type of brakes your vehicle uses.
    1. Standard/disc brakes: pump the brakes and try to build up enough pressure.
    2. Antilock brake system (ABS): press down hard on the brake pedal and keep it down. Do not pump the brakes.
  3. Shift to a lower gear if the above step does not work.
  4. Cautiously apply the parking/emergency brake. Be sure not to tug at it too hard because it will cause your tires to lock.

Sound the horn and turn on your emergency flashers to warn other drivers. Pull to the right as soon as it is safe. If necessary, rub your tires against a curb, sideswipe guardrails or parked cars, or drive into something soft, such as bushes. Turn off the ignition only after you have stopped or no longer need to change direction. Never drive without your brakes.

Gas Pedal Sticks

A stuck gas pedal is usually not a major problem, and it can be solved by stepping repeatedly on the gas. If that does not work and the car continues to increase in speed:

  1. Concentrate on steering. Keep your eyes on the road.
  2. Lift the gas pedal with your toe. DO NOT bend down to lift the pedal with your hands.
  3. If this does not work:
    1. Press down hard on the brake pedal.
    2. Shift to neutral.
Vehicle Power Loss

If your vehicle loses power while driving:

  1. Activate the emergency flashers if they still work.
  2. Shift into the neutral position.
  3. DO NOT turn off the ignition, as this may also lock up the steering wheel.
  4. Position your vehicle to exit traffic. Safely steer for the shoulder of the road and get your car off the road if possible.
  5. Steering and braking will still work but will be much more difficult. Use these to the best of your ability. If necessary, use the emergency brake to assist with braking or, if you have a manual transmission, shift to a lower gear.
Vehicle Breakdown

Photograph of a broken down car on the side of the road

Try to move your car off the pavement if it breaks down so it does not become a hazard to other drivers.

The actions you should take with a stalled car will vary according to time and location, among other factors. The goal is to show other drivers that your vehicle is disabled and you need road service or a tow. These rules usually apply:

  1. Try to move your car off the pavement. Removing your car from the road will reduce the possibility of another vehicle hitting you.
  2. Turn on your emergency flashers. If you are able to pull off the road safely, raise the hood tie a white cloth to your vehicle's antenna or left door handle to alert other drivers that you need assistance. If the vehicle breaks down at night, turn on the inside light.

Once you are off the road safely, remain in the car and lock the doors. Walking aimlessly on the side of the road looking for assistance is unwise and unsafe. Sitting in the locked vehicle waiting for law enforcement is the safest and most prudent move.

If visibility is poor, it is not safe to stay in the car due to the possibility it may be rear-ended. You and all your passengers will need to get out. Exit through the passenger side, not the driver side, and stay well away from traffic but as close as safely possible to your car and where you can observe oncoming traffic.

If You See Flashing Lights

If you see a light flashing on the side of the road, it may be a disabled vehicle. In this situation you should:

  1. Move into a lane away from the flashing light.
  2. Slow down.
  3. Observe the scene carefully.
  4. Be prepared for the unexpected.
Steering Failure

If loss of steering occurs, you won't be able to control the direction in which your vehicle travels. However, you can still slow down. Stop as quickly as you can, without endangering others. You can do this by easing up on the gas pedal. After you have slowed down, gently apply the brakes and bring the vehicle to a smooth stop. Turn on your emergency lights and use other means to let others on the road know you are experiencing trouble.

If the power steering fails, you will still be able to steer. Use both hands to turn your steering wheel as it will be more difficult to turn. Pull off the road, turn off your vehicle, and restart the engine - that will solve this problem in most cases. Take your car to a shop or call for a tow truck if the power steering is not restored.

Headlight Failure

If the highway is lighted when your headlights fail, get off the roadway and pull over to the shoulder or other safe area as quickly and safely as you can. If it is dark, rapidly turn the headlight switch on and off a few times. If that does not restore your lights, immediately turn on your flashers and pull over to the side of the road as soon as you can. Try to stay on the pavement until you slow down enough to get off the roadway safely. You may have to call for service as your vehicle is not safe to drive without functional headlights.

Hood Flies Open

If there is a problem with the hood latch, or the hood was closed improperly, the hood may pop up suddenly while you are driving. This will block your view of the road, which will make driving with your vehicle in this condition dangerous to everyone. If the hood flies open:

  1. Immediately take your foot off the gas pedal.
  2. Brake smoothly and pull over to the side of the road. If you stop suddenly, you are risking a rear-end collision.
  3. Either look under the hood or stick your head out the window so you can see the road ahead. If you get your head out of the window, be sure you can do this safely.
  4. Turn on your emergency lights and signal others by tapping your brakes or using your hands to let them know you are about to stop.

You should make it a habit after every stop at a service station to check to see that your hood is securely latched.

Journal Question

Some driving schools offer what is generally referred to as "advanced driver training" to teach drivers how to deal with emergency situations. However, some safety experts believe this actually does more harm than good. Why do you think that is the case?

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