T here are potentially catastrophic driving situations that can be turned into quickly forgotten incidents with simple, effective action. For most, passengers can save the day. PM contributor Mac Demere, a former racing driver and driving instructor, offers a few simple tips to keep you alive out there.
Keep calm and drive on
Most fatal single-vehicle crashes involve the vehicle running off the road. Here's what happens in many of them: An inattentive or distracted driver allows the car's right tires to drop off the pavement or onto Interstate rumble strips. The loud noise suddenly alerts the driver that he's drifting to the right, causing him to yank left on the steering wheel. The wayward front tire regains grip while one or both rear tires are in the loose stuff. With little or no rear traction, the vehicle spins out and leaves the highway—and could even flip.
The way to avoid this fate is to stay calm and not overreact. If you find yourself drifting off the road, let off the gas and allow the car to slow down, and gently ease back on the road. Do not depress the brake unless you see an obstacle approaching and need to get back in your lane faster. Whatever you do, be smooth with the steering; a little goes a long way at high speeds.
Put It in Neutral
A stuck throttle is an automotive mugging: It's unexpected, petrifying, and what you do in the next few seconds may change your life forever. The solution is easy: Slap the shift lever into neutral. In the vast majority of cars, the passenger can do this as easily as the driver. Almost all modern cars have physical or electronic devices that prevent the transmission from going into reverse or park while you're driving down the road, as well as electronic limiters to preclude engine damage, so you don't have to worry about hurting the car by putting it in neutral. A manual transmission car might take a little bit more force to put into the neutral gate, but it'll go as well.
I've experienced stuck accelerators caused by faulty cables, misplaced floor mats, and panicked driving-event students who mistakenly mash the throttle pedal rather than brake. I've always quickly cured the problem by bumping the shifter into neutral or, when driving a manual-transmission car, depressing the clutch.
Get a spotter
Every car has blind spots. And today's cars increasingly have thick, airbag-filled A-pillars (the vertical post that connects roof and body) that can hide cars around you. If you're riding with a passenger, then, employ him or her as your spotter. I ask my passengers to say, "clear right" or "traffic right," when I'm trying to turn left. I'm also happy to have them point out things I might have missed, such as "bicyclist ahead." Stay away from saying "no" and "go." (At ages 6 and 8, my kids said, "clear, high!" when I passed a car on a two-lane. The things that happen when you're a race driver...)
This might take some getting used to. Most of us don't like back-seat (or front-seat) drivers, nor are we accustomed to offering advice or watching the road with care when we're not driving. But having a little help from the passenger seat will make everybody's ride a little safer.
I can't see clearly now
"I can't see," the driver shouted at me. As he ineffectively batted at the suddenly fogged windshield, I switched the heating system from "recirculation" to "fresh air" and engaged the air conditioner. Within seconds the windshield was clear, except for the smudgy patch left by his fingerprints.
Engaging the air conditioner (regardless of the temperature setting) and allowing the system to suck in fresh air lowers the humidity inside the car. Many vehicles now automatically engage the air conditioner and disengage recirculation when you select the defroster to avoid a fogged-up windshield.
Speaking of poor visibility, there's probably been a time in your life that you've forgotten to change your wiper blades soon enough and have been caught out in a rainstorm with blades that did more smearing than clearing. You might be able to revive them for one last storm with a quick cleaning. Rub the wiper blade with the sponge side of a gas-station squeegee (or the sponge from the office coffee room) and a clean, dry towel. Get the windshield, inside and out, while you're at it. Don't procrastinate about buying new blades the next day.
Make a plan B. And C. And D...
Recently I was following someone who was driving while texting who almost ran off the left side of a two-lane, as a car approached from ahead. Watching this unfold just in front of me, I had to figure out how to avoid it. Plan A was to pound the brakes. Plan B, backing up, was not a great option because I couldn't see far enough around the previous curve of this heavily traveled road to know whether other cars were coming. I crossed out Plan C, escape routes, because of earthen banks on both sides of the road. Plan D was to employ Plan B and go into reverse if the oncoming driver veered around the errant driver and into my lane.
Fortunately, the texter completed his text and returned to his lane, while the oncoming driver stopped. The moral of the story: Don't text and drive, but also work through possible options before an emergency happens. Then if it does, you'll be better prepared and able to think your way out of it.