Five deadly driving hazards—
and how to survive them
By Alex Markovich
YOU LIFT YOUR FOOT off the gas, but your car
surges ahead as if it has a mind of its own. An
approaching car swerves into your lane and comes
straight at you. A tire blows out, and the steering wheel
pulls violently in your hands. In each of these cases,
what you do—and don’t do—next can make the difference between a simple scare and a disaster.
On August 28, 2009, California Highway Patrol
officer Mark Saylor was driving with his wife,
daughter and brother-in-law aboard. Suddenly the
car began to accelerate. Their desperate 911 call was
of no avail. All four died in a fiery 120-mph crash.
The problem behind “unintended acceleration”
may be a mechanical glitch or simply a floor mat
bunched up against the gas pedal. Whatever the
cause, stopping is easy if you know how.
With an automatic transmission, shift into neutral. With a manual, step down on the clutch pedal.
The engine will race, but the car will stop accelerating.
Don’t turn off the ignition while the car is moving, or
braking and steering will require much greater effort.
This is one of the most hair-raising situations
you can face. The driver who’s about to ram you
head-on may be asleep, distracted, drunk, sick or
even suicidal. In that instant, it doesn’t matter.
Brake hard and lean on the horn. Steer toward the
right—off the pavement, if necessary. Don’t steer
left: The oncoming driver may swerve back at the
last instant. Avoid a head-on crash at all costs. If
you must hit something, aim for shrubs, a parked
car, anything that gives.
My niece Jill was driving to college in Connecticut
when construction debris blew out one of her tires.
Tablet or smartphone? Scan or click here for a video with tips for driving on wet roads. (See page 5 for details.)
She slammed on the brakes, and her car spun
around and rolled over three times. Only her safety
belt saved her from serious injury.
If you have a blowout, stay off the brakes. Keep
your foot steady on the gas, grip the wheel firmly
and concentrate on steering. When you have the car
under control, gradually lift off the gas.
Today’s cars have dual brake systems, so total
brake failures are very rare. In case of a malfunction,
the brakes on at least two of the four wheels should
still work. But stops will take longer and will require
more pedal effort.
Pumping the brake pedal rapidly and hard may
build up enough pressure for a four-wheel stop. If
necessary, shift into a lower gear so the engine slows
you down. You might damage the transmission, but
that’s better than crashing. As a last resort, scrub off
speed by sideswiping a wall or parked cars—
whatever it takes to slow down.
You’re driving on a wet road, maybe
a little too fast, when the steering suddenly feels eerily light. What has happened is that a thin wedge of water
has actually lifted your front tires
off the pavement, as your car
glides ahead as if on ice. To regain
control, ease off the gas. That will
shift some of the car’s weight onto
the front tires and squeeze
out the water underneath.
Then, slow down.
WORN TIRES are more likely to
blow out and to hydroplane. To
check for wear, insert a penny,
Lincoln’s head first, into each
of your tires’ treads. If you can
see the top of Lincoln’s head
in any tread, replace the tire.
While you’re at it, check for
cuts and bubbles, which are
signs of impending tire failure.
You’ll find a wide selection of
BF Goodrich, Bridgestone and
Michelin tires in the Tire Center
at your local Costco warehouse
and on Costco.com.
Whether you drive
a Hummer or a hybrid,
knowing what to do—
and what not to do—in
an emergency is the key to
Alex Markovich was the auto editor at Consumer
Reports before he retired. His articles have appeared
in many publications.