How to Handle a Real Auto Emergency
A guide to escaping the unthinkable — it might just save your life.
Fire accidents are the fifth leading cause of death (3,000 annually) in America according to the Fire and Accident Causation Technical Services (FACTS).
If your idea of a vehicular emergency is changing a flat tire, let's just say the instructions are on a sticker under the trunk lid or, for sure, in your vehicle's owner's manual. But as the nightly news likes to remind us all too often, the world can be a dangerous place. People face real perils out on our roadways every day, the sort of sticky wickets in which a person's survival could be in real doubt. When such threats occur, it'll take some sang-froid and a bit of knowledge to escape serious injury or even death.
While we can't impart a James Bond level of self-preservation or MacGyverlike ingenuity, we did poll experts on how to handle some of the most terrifying automotive emergencies imaginable and have summarized their advice in this easy-to-understand guide.
For driver-against-nature duels, we queried noted driving consultant and owner of 4-Wheeling America, Bill Burke. He often instructs military and security-service men and women, as well as enthusiast civilians, on wilderness and foreign-country driving skills that can save their lives.
Help with driver-against-another-person conflicts came from Mike McGovern of The Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Phoenix. Car control is the emphasis of Bondurant's Executive Protection/Anti-Kidnapping course, which is a natural extension of its many auto-racing curricula.
The common thread reiterated repeatedly by both experts is to resist the urge to panic and to be prepared for the worst. Here's what they had to say about how to . . .
Flee From a Carjacker
According to the Justice Department's Bureau of Statistics, more than 40,000 carjackings occur annually in the United States. But some people think that number is conservative, estimating it is more like 90,000 each year. Regardless, carjacking is a crime that is becoming more frequent and increasingly more violent, and generally involves some type of firearm.
The best ways to prevent a carjacking are to remain alert at all times, keep your doors locked and avoid high-crime areas. But if trouble does present itself, get on the gas. It's pretty sporting to carjack a moving vehicle, but standing at, say, a stoplight makes you a sitting duck. Traffic law niceties are no inducement to hang around in this scenario.
If the carjacker does get past your door, abandon the vehicle immediately. Keeping your car isn't worth losing your life.
Escape From a Car Under Water
According to a recent CBS News report, a car goes in the water every four hours in the U.S., and 300 people die each year as a result. Once your car is submerged, you have only seconds to react. The key is to find air; if you can't breathe, you can't help yourself. So once your vehicle is underwater, release your seat belt and find a pocket of trapped air. Cars normally sink engine first, so often the air bubble is usually against the rear window or roof — assuming the vehicle is still upright.
Next, make an opening and swim out. Forget the doors; you probably won't be able to open them against even the mildest water pressure. That leaves the windows. If your car is equipped with hand cranks, this will be relatively easy. Power windows should still work underwater. Either way, roll them down slowly to equalize the water pressure. Even through a small opening, water will rush in with tremendous force — so take a deep breath and be ready to swim.
If the windows won't open, you'll have to break them. By far the best tool to have in this situation is a window breaker and seat belt cutter such as the Swiss Army Knife Rescue Tool. These lifesavers have a point on one end sharp enough to punch through glass and cut the laminate plastic sandwiched in all windshields and many rear windows. Keep the rescue tool within arm's reach; it does no good if you can't get to it.
Drive Out of a Wildfire
Burning to death may be the grisliest peril of all. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, approximately 106,000 wildfires break out each year in the U.S. They are particularly prevalent in the summer, fall and winter, especially during dry periods. Western U.S. fires tend to be more dramatic during summer and fall, while Southern fires are hardest to fight in late winter and early spring, when fallen branches, leaves and other materials dry out and become highly flammable.
Lack of visibility is likely your biggest obstacle when caught in a wildfire, not the fire itself. Thick smoke can lie low, obscuring fallen trees, power lines or even oncoming traffic such as firetrucks, so plunging through at speed is ill-advised. Stay in your lane and motor through as carefully as the fire allows.
If you can see through the fire line, you're likely in good shape. Keep the windows rolled up to protect against the smoke and heat, and put the air conditioning on "max" to recirculate cabin air. If you need to navigate the actual fire line, make sure you can see through it — you don't want to drive into an oven.
If you can't see through the flames, you would be taking an immense risk by forging ahead; a long detour is clearly preferable.
Handle a Brake Failure
Complete brake failures are more Hollywood fiction than modern reality. There simply are too many backup systems behind your car's brake pedal for it to go totally dead, except on rare occasions. A more likely problem is brake fade, where the brakes overheat and lose effectiveness. The good news here is that even a little bit of "air cooling" from simply not using the brakes typically restores all stopping power. However, that might mean, say, whipping around a couple of twisty mountain turns faster than you want.
If that doesn't work, then you will have to create some friction to slow the car. Pump the brake pedal; it might regain some or even a lot of stopping power. If it does, keep your foot on that pedal until the car reaches a full stop. Applying the parking brake is your next move, but don't be surprised when it doesn't do much. It works only on the rear wheels, which are only about one-third as effective as the front. Gearing down (shift the car down a gear or into low) is step two, and at lower speeds, weaving aggressively left and right will also scrub off speed.
But if you're having a truly bad day and none of the above works, you'll need to rub the car against things. Curbs and embankments are typically good when approached at a shallow angle, as is shrubbery, as long as nothing stout is hiding inside it.