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5 Road Emergencies and How to Handle Them

A car crashed into a fence
Photo courtesy of Utah County Sheriff's Office, Utah

Road emergencies are as varied as they are many. You could be coasting along, enjoying some tunes, when suddenly a tire blows, the engine stalls, or another car veers into your lane. Remaining calm is key, and knowing how to respond effectively can be life-saving.

Here’s an overview of five common road emergencies and how you can overcome them.

1. Tire blowout

There’s nothing like the fateful tire blowout to put a hitch in your plans. It’s abrupt, loud and has a way of occurring during the most inopportune moments—any moment, really.

When the front tire bursts, the change is typically felt in the steering column, whereas a rear tire blowout impacts the force of the vehicle’s body where it’s felt more in the driver’s seat. At high speeds especially, the vehicle will slow down and may jerk strongly to the right or left. But in either case your response should be the same.

Although that unnerving gunshot sound causes many drivers to panic and mash the brakes—don’t. Instead, stabilize the steering wheel and hit the accelerator just long enough steady the vehicle. Then allow the vehicle to come to a gradual limp where you can pull over. Jerking the steering wheel, or “overcorrecting” in response to the vehicle jolting left or right could cause the vehicle to spin out—which we’ll get to later.

Remember, tire blowouts are largely avoidable. By checking your tires on a monthly basis for worn treads, over-/under-inflation, and slow leakage, you’ll do much in the way of preventing common (and costly) accidents on the road.

2. Stalled engine

A vehicle can suddenly lose power and stall out for a slew of reasons — including a faulty fuel pump, transmission problems, electrical problems, oil leakage, or from simply running out of gas. In 2015, for instance, Fiat Chrysler recalled almost 410,000 vehicles worldwide due to a wiring and software issue that increased the risk of stalling.

If you’re on the highway and the engine cuts out suddenly, the vehicle’s power steering will shut down, followed by the brake’s power boost. Nonetheless, both are still operable, albeit heavier, so with a bit more exertion, carefully steer the vehicle to the side of the road while applying the brakes and using the emergency brake as needed.

3. Jammed accelerator

It’s a horrifying thought, but as you may remember with Toyota’s recall of nearly 4 million Toyotas and Lexus back in 2009, jammed throttles do happen, and sometimes the culprit is something as simple as a floor mat. That’s why if you ever see the floor mat begin to curl up — especially near the pedal — it may be time to get a new one. For vehicles with floor mats that clip to the floor, make sure they’re thoroughly secure.

If the throttle ever jams on its own, mash down hard on the brakes. The brakes should be able to overpower the engine, and because modern vehicles are typically equipped with anti-lock brake systems, you’ll retain control of the steering wheel.

As you engage the brakes with maximal effort, shift the transmission into neutral. If that doesn’t do anything, then you may need to cut off the ignition entirely. As with a stalled engine, the power assist to both steering wheel and brakes will shut down, but you’ll still be able to control them and guide the vehicle to safety.

4. High winds

It may seem of minor importance, but heavy wind patterns can be volatile. When driving through vigorous gales, be on the lookout for top-heavy vehicles, like SUVs, tractor trailers, and big rigs, which are especially prone to sway.

As with any kind of inclement weather condition, slow down. Maintain a firm grip on the steering wheel and keep your head on a swivel for fallen power lines, debris, and potentially flooded areas. You may recall the infamous case back in ’89 of the woman driving a Yugo who stopped on Mackinac Bridge in Michigan, where strong gusts lifted her small car over the rails. So if you find yourself on a bridge amidst violent gales, do not stop.

Moreover, if there’ve been hurricane or tornado warnings in your area, your trip can definitely wait.

5. Sudden events

A deer dashes in front of you on a blind turn. A vehicle veers into your lane to avoid a collision. Your tires suddenly hit a patch of black ice. In reaction to urgent events like these, many drivers have a tendency to jerk the wheel in such a way that they lose control of the car. As previously mentioned, this is called overcorrecting, and it often causes vehicles to spin out, roll over, careen into oncoming traffic, or run off the road. In fact, the NHTSA reports that roughly 70 percent of vehicles that run off the road had overcorrected.

For the most part, accidents like these could’ve been avoided had drivers maintained their calm. Instead of swerving out of the way, focus on maintaining a firm grip on the wheel and keeping the vehicle steady. Lift your foot off the gas and brake, look at where you want the vehicle to go, and carefully maneuver in that direction.

Of course, there are instances where stopping is critical — if, say, a big rig loses control and skids across your lane. Again, newer vehicles are typically equipped with anti-lock braking systems, allowing the driver to retain control of the steering wheel during extreme braking efforts. If the situation calls for it, brake hard and don’t let up. If possible, keep the tires pointed straight to maintain maximum stopping power, but if you need to maneuver around objects ahead, then do so.

Most important of all, be prepared before you encounter a road hazard. Have an emergency road kit handy at all times, and familiarize yourself with the vehicle’s controls and components. Practice applying the brakes in a safe area, like your driveway, and anticipate dangers when you’re on the road. Plus, if you haven’t already, seriously consider joining an emergency roadside service, which you can typically do through your insurer. After one tow from a freezing roadside, you’ll be happy you did.

About the author

Eric Madia is Vice President of Auto Product at Esurance, where he is responsible for designing the company’s auto product lines. Eric has 22 years of experience in the industry, focused primarily on the underwriting, pricing, and innovation of auto insurance products. You can follow him on twitter @Erictheactuary.

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