Cars are getting safer all the time. With antilock brakes, automatic parking, backup cameras, airbags, radar collision detection -- you'd almost think nothing could go wrong while you're driving, assuming that you're a reasonably good driver and don't behave like an idiot behind the wheel. But what if something fails -- your brakes stop working or your car won't stop accelerating? Or you find yourself driving a little too riskily under unsafe conditions, like ice, snow or wet road surfaces? We have two words for you -- stolen from Douglas Adams' book, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" -- don't panic!
If you know what to do, you can generally get your car safely back under control when it starts acting like it has a mind of its own. You just have to be prepared and keep a cool head. Here are some tips for how to handle an out-of-control car. We'll break them down into two basic categories: mechanical failures and bad road conditions.
First, the mechanical failures:
Brake failure: There's a traffic light ahead. Or a stopped car. Or you need to slow down for a turn. But when you put your foot on the brake pedal, nothing happens. This usually occurs because you've lost brake fluid or you've had too much wear and tear on your brake pads. Okay, you should have had these things checked out in advance, but knowing that doesn't help much when the brakes fail. What do you do?
Obviously, you shouldn't press the accelerator, but you figured that out yourself, right? If your brake pedal won't go down, check to make sure there's nothing blocking it, like a loose bottle that's rolled underneath. If so, just remove it. If the pedal goes down, try using the engine to brake. If you have a manual transmission, hit the clutch and drop to the next lower gear and then the next lower, though you might not want to drop all the way to first unless you absolutely have to. Most automatic transmissions will let you shift into lower gears too, but you won't need the clutch. If it's a real emergency and you're about to collide with something, you can drop more than one gear in a single downshift, but be warned that this may ruin your transmission. Still, it's a lot better than colliding with someone's rear bumper. Finally, you can use the emergency brake. (That's probably why they call it an emergency brake.) This doesn't work terribly well, as anybody who's accidentally started driving without taking the brake off can tell you, but it's better than nothing and can be used in conjunction with engine braking to reach a complete halt.
Runaway acceleration: Every now and then you hear about a car that takes off like a rocket sled even though nobody's increased the pressure on the accelerator. Usually this results in a manufacturer's recall, so it's probable you'll never have it happen to you. If it does, first check to make sure it isn't just a stuck accelerator pedal, where the pedal went down but became mechanically jammed and wouldn't come back up. In that case, wedge your right foot under the pedal to pull it back up and hit the brake with your left foot to slow back down. Even if the accelerator isn't stuck, put the car in neutral and apply firm, continuous pressure to the brake pedal to slow the car down. If for some reason this still doesn't work, turn the engine off. (In a Toyota with an engine button, this may require holding the button down for three seconds before it will respond.) If you have a key ignition, don't pull the key out. That would lock the steering wheel.
Bad Weather and Road Conditions
Generally, bad road conditions are caused by one of three weather events: rain, snow or ice. (If your car is struck by a tornado, we really can't help you.) Let's look at those one at a time:
Rain: If the weather has been dry for a while, a layer of oil can build up on the road which, when combined with a sudden rainstorm, can make the road dangerously slick. The good news is that the oil layer washes off fairly quickly, but the first few hours after rain starts falling are the most dangerous, because the oil is still there. Try to drive more slowly than you usually would and avoid braking suddenly. In particularly bad rainstorms, where the road surface is coated with a layer of water, a very hazardous condition can occur: hydroplaning. This is when the water builds up so quickly under your tires that your car literally starts to float, driving on top of the water instead of the road. Your brakes won't work normally while hydroplaning because you no longer have traction. The steering wheel will no longer make your car turn correctly. Avoid hydroplaning by keeping your speed down, but once it happens take your foot off the accelerator to let the car slow down, don't brake hard because it can cause a skid, and drive in a straight line. You have the most control when moving in a straight line, so point the wheels straight ahead. If you turn the wheels at an angle to the direction in which you're traveling, you're likely to go into a dangerous skid. Okay, it's easy to say that you should go straight when you're heading toward an obstacle, but you'll be surprised at how fast you gain control again as you slow down and the brakes start working.
Snow: Your worst problem on a snowy day may be getting the car moving in the first place, especially if the snow plows haven't gone to work yet. If your car won't move out its parking place in front of your house, it's probably telling you to stay home. Otherwise, the rules are similar to those for hydroplaning. If you start skidding, let up on the accelerator, try to drive in a straight line to get control back and never, ever try to go fast on a snow-covered road. If you don't have antilock brakes, pump your brakes rather than tromping on them. If you do have ABS, this will be done automatically.
Ice: Perhaps the most treacherous weather condition for driving is freezing rain. This is when supercooled raindrops -- water that's been cooled below the normal freezing point of 32 degree Fahrenheit -- hit the road surface and freeze instantly, turning the highway into an ice-coated skating rink. Avoid driving under these conditions if at all possible, because it's almost impossible to drive on a slickly frozen road surface. If you absolutely have to, drive as slowly as you can. Brake gently and long before you actually need to stop. Follow the hydroplaning rules and try to drive in a straight line if you feel your car starting to skid (though on an ice-coated road, it's surprisingly hard not to skid). Watch for slippery spots on the road surface, but bear in mind that you won't always be able to see them. So-called "black ice" is effectively invisible and you won't know it's there until you go into a skid, so in freezing rain just assume the road is dangerously slick unless you have compelling evidence to the contrary, like cars driving ahead of you melting the ice with the friction of their tires.
Perhaps the best rule for driving on icy roads is to stay home with a warm drink and wait for the thaw. You may miss the movie you wanted to see or a party with friends, but you and your car will weather the storm in good condition.
If your used car gets recalled, can your still get it fixed? Find out what to do if your used car gets recalled at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: How do you stop an out-of-control car?
My first car accident, at age 17, occurred on a rain slick road. I was driving a little too fast for conditions. I turned a corner and a car was stopped in front of me. I hit the brakes and nothing happened. Fortunately, nobody was hurt when I rear-ended the car in front of me, but my own car was in the repair shop for several days. Years later, I made the mistake of going out shopping on a snowy night and ruined the alignment on my Toyota Corolla when I went into a sideways skid and hit the curb. I'd like to think I've learned enough since both of those accidents that they'll never happen again (I've also moved to a warmer climate, where the only weather problem is the occasional rainstorm), but all I can say is that you should practice what I preach and not what I've been known to do. Those accidents taught me to treat wet and icy roads with respect -- and I hope you do the same.
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