Humans don't "rise to the occasion."
Many people simply don't realize the amazing capability of ABS (antilock braking systems). As I've written before, most drivers aren't comfortable pushing a car to its limits; in an emergency they'd even rather run into something. But if you haven't practiced a full-on ABS stop, you might smash into an easily avoidable obstacle because you don't know that you can avoid it.
Instead, we fall to our level of training and experience. Archilochus, a Greek soldier–poet, wasn't thinking about driving when he said this 2800 years ago. But my experience as a race driver, driving instructor, and parent of teen drivers says he could have been.
I teach at B.R.A.K.E.S., a nonprofit advanced teen driving school founded by drag-racing champion Doug Herbert after both of his boys died in an avoidable accident. Here are a few of the school's advanced driving techniques that you can teach yourself... on a little-used dead-end road or other safe location at low speed.
Use Those Brakes for Goodness' Sake
So they learn to tap the full power of ABS, I teach my students "stomp, stay, steer." First, stomp—hard—on the brake pedal. Pretend there's a photo on the pedal of your ex who fooled around with your best friend. Second, stay—again, hard—on the pedal. Ignore nasty sounds and the pulsations from pedal. You are not hurting the car. (When teaching ABS to the mothers of the B.R.A.K.E.S. students, yelling "Push, push, push!" works well.)
Finally, steer around the obstacle. The wonder of ABS is that it allows turning while braking, a skill that takes race drivers (who aren't driving with ABS) years to develop. Just remember that a little steering goes a long way: One big problem with ABS is that drivers turn the wheel too much and then release the pedal before centering the steering. Do this while the vehicle is still moving and it will dart into either oncoming traffic or a roadside ditch.
Speaking of overcorrecting: A common cause of highway fatalities is a driver jerking the car back toward his or her lane after running partially off the right side of the road. It's especially common on rural two-laners. The sad thing is that these accidents and deaths are unnecessary—you don't need to pull hard to get the car back in your lane. The vehicle's left-side tires offer more than adequate traction except in the rarest of situations.
So if your mind wanders for a second (or you looked down at the incoming text on your phone) and your passenger's side wheels drop off the road, remain calm. Ease off the accelerator, allow the car to slow down on its own, look ahead for a safe place to return to the pavement, and gently move the steering wheel to the left to ease back into traffic. Avoid the brakes unless there's a damn good reason to get off the shoulder, such as an upcoming bridge or parked car, and then use only light braking. Practice this at about 20 mph if you want to get the hang of it.
Use Thumb Hangers... and Forget 10 and 2
A cop I know was once fiddling with the in-car computer with his right hand while driving the car with his left hand at 12 (the top of the steering wheel, for those of you young enough to be unfamiliar with analog clocks. We know you're out there.) When the distracted police officer smashed into a stopped car, the force of the airbag deployment flung his hand back into his face, and he broke out his front teeth with his own hand.
That, my friends, is why you don't drive with a hand at 12 o'clock. The 10 and 2 position, once the common wisdom of driver's ed classes, is also dead (or at least it should be) thanks to airbags. The proper position is 9 and 3, while the Italian-esque 8 and 4 is more than acceptable. Don't do those hand-over-hand turns anymore, either.
Most modern steering wheels have "thumb hangers" that naturally put your hands at 9 and 3 so you won't smack yourself if an airbag deploys. Below 14 mph (the approximate speed for airbag deployment) I don't care where put your hands. Nor will I get bent out of shape if you cross over 11 or 1 in an urgent situation. But my students need a good reason to cross 12 o'clock.
Train Yourself to React
Even the most cautious and conscientious driver will eventually face an emergency skill test. If you don't train for it, you'll fail. (Archilochus said so.)
I see this all the time during a B.R.A.K.E.S. exercise that requires an urgent lane change. Our course features a single lane of traffic that widens out suddenly to three, and then narrows again to one just as quickly. Although there are no other cars on the road during our tests, I tell the kids to imagine it this way: Granny has stopped abruptly in the center of a three-lane road. In the hypothetical scenario, two Ford Expeditions are tailgating her car. When she hits the brakes, one dodges to the left, the other to the right, revealing the car stopped in the center lane. Even if the student has left a safe following distance, she's left with two seconds to take action.
It's a valuable test, because even good drivers will probably do nothing but smash into the back of the car if they haven't prepared for this—there's just not enough time to think and then react. When students do the exercise properly and quickly veer into one of the neighboring lanes to avoid danger, the tires barely moan and the car remains stable.