Compiled by Dick Oakes
This article describes some of the most common emergency situtations and how they can be handled, with accident prevention and the safety of motorists and innocent pedestrians being the prime concern.
First Rule of Crash Avoidance
The best way to avoid accidents is to keep your vehicle in safe running condition.
- Inspect your vehicle periodically, performing the inspection and preventive maintenance services within your capabilities, checking the tires, lights, and fluid levels.
- When necessary, take your vehicle to a repir facility for such things as the condition of fan belts and hoses, exhaust system, brakes, steering assembly, and wheel alignment.
- When problems are apparent, e.g., looseness in steering, steering pulling to the side, vibration in the wheels, spongy brakes, uneven tire wear, noisy muffler, unusual noises, or stalling, prompt and proper repairs are necessary to assure safety of the vehicle.
- A squeal from the engine compartment may mean you have a loose fan belt.
- Check the location and condition of your fire extinguisher, jack, spare tire, warning devices or flares, and flashlight.
- Know the location of your fuse panel and carry spare fuses.
- An oil pressure light slow to go out may indicate a serious potential problem.
Stopping on the Highway
Many emergency situtations require stopping on the highway, which is dangerous. If you must stop on a highway, observe the following:
- Signal your intention to pull off the highway, pull off near traffic speed, then slow down.
- If the shoulder is unpaved, signal a right turn and slow down to a safe speed before pulling off the paved roadway.
- In dusk, darkness, or bad weather, leave your low-beam headlights on, turn on your interior lights and your four-way flashers.
- If you have to stop over the crest of a hill or on a curve, get everyone out of the vehicle and well away from traffic.
- Place a flare or other warning device just behind the vehicle and at least 300 feet farther back (and check on these before starting to drive away).
- If you need help, tie a white cloth to the antenna or left door handle.
- Remember that hazard lights may not work when the brakes are applied, so shut off the engine, put the car in park or neutral, apply the parking brake, and take your foot off the brake pedal.
If your throttle (accelerator pedal) sticks, here's what you can do.
- If you have a lot of distance between you and other traffic, first tap lightly on the accelerator pedal a few times to see if it will spring back to its normal position.
- If that fails, pull the pedal up with the toe of your shoe -- DON'T reach down to do it.
- If you must slow down or stop rapidly, turn your ignition to off and apply the brakes (be sure you turn the key to off, not lock).
- Note that if you have power steering and power brakes, turning off the ignition will require increased physical effort to steer and brake the vehicle.
- Don't pump the brakes.
- As the vehicle slows down, guide it off the roadway.
- After you stop, look for the source of trouble. The pedal may be binding on the floor mat or rug. If this isn't the case and you know something about engines, look inside the engine compartment and check the accelerator linkage. Some of the parts may be stuck and binding, and a little oil (such as from the oil dipstick) may solve the problem.
- Otherwise, don't drive the car -- get help so the problem can be corrected.
- If the problem is corrected, make certain before driving the vehicle. Apply the emergency or parking brake firmly, put the gear selecter in park or neutral, and start the vehicle. Press the acellerator a few times to make sure it returns to its normal position after you remove your foot. Then put the vehicle in gear and try giving it gas a few times before releasing the parking brake.
Newer vehicles have a split braking system designed to reduce the possibility of total brake failure and include a warning light on the instrument panel.
- When the BRAKE FAILURE light comes on, slow down, pull off the road, and don't proceed until you have the problem corrected.
- Because of the split braking system, chances are that you will have some braking power left when the brake failure light comes on, although you may have to apply more force to the brake pedal and will need a greater distance to stop.
- If you have a COMPLETE BRAKE FAILURE, you must act rapidly.
- If possible, get off the highway and onto the shoulder or other clear area;
- Try pumping your brakes rapidly to bring up your brake pressure;
- If pumping doesn't work, put the gear selector in a lower range or extra low in vehicles with automatic transmissions;
- Apply the emeregency parking brake with increased force;
- If none of the above work and you are in danger of crashing into something or someone, or of going down an embankment, turn the ignition off and move the gear selector to LOW (which may damage your transmission but may help you to stop in a real emergency);
- If your brakes fail on a hill or mountain grade and the above remedies do not work, look for something to sideswipe -- a snowbank, a guardrail, dirt mounds, or anything that will slow you down.
Loss of Steering
Loss of steering can occur suddenly and without warning. Something in the steering mechanism or its related components may break, fall off, or jam, leaving you with no control of the vehicle's direction.
- APPLY THE BRAKES to come to a stop as quickly as possible;
- Turn on your EMERGENCY FLASHERS as a warning to other motorists and pedestrians while applying the brakes;
- BLOW YOUR HORN;
- USE HAND SIGNALS.
- Position your emergenc warning devices (flares or highway triangular warning signs).
- When your vehicle finally comes to a halt, try to move it off the roadway.
- Leave the vehicle in place until you get the steering repaired or a wrecker to move the vehicle to a repair facility.
- Attach a white cloth to your radio antenna or door handle to indicate to other motorists or police that you need assistance.
Fires are generally caused by a fault in the electrical system or by leakage in the fuel system, which may cause raw gas to leak onto a hot engine.
- When such a fire develops, pull off the roadway just as soon as it is safe to do so;
- Turn off the ignition.
- Get out of the vehicle in a safe manner.
- Try to put out the fire with a fire extinguisher or by throwing dirt on it or by using a heavy cloth over it.
- Flag down a passing motorist who may have a fire extinguisher.
- Fires in the rear of the vehicle are most hazaradous because of the location of the gas tank and the possibility of explosion.
- If you see smoke or flames coming from the rear of the vehicle, immediately pull off the road to a safe spot, get all passengers out of the vehicle, and remain at a great distance from the vehicle.
- If the fire is in the front, turn your head aside as the hood is released to prevent burns from flashing flames. Be careful when raising the hood -- use a rag to cover your hand so you don't get burned.
- Call the fire department.
- Don't attempt to drive the vehicle until the cause of the blaze is determined and the problem corrected.
Loss of Lights
A total loss of lights in conjunction with power loss is usually caused by burnout of a fuse, a fused wire, or by loosened battery cables.
- If your lights go out, pull off the road and take care of the problem before proceeding.
- Know where the fuse panel is in your vehicle -- check your Owner's Manual.
- Carry spare fuses.
- Find your fuse panel and identify the fuse for your lights using a flashlight.
- Replace the blown fuse with a good one.
- If the new fuse doesn't solve the problem or if the new fuse blows, your problem is more serious and requires repair.
Engine overheating can be caused by a leak in the radiator, by hoses permitting the loss of coolant, a faulty water pump, a bad thermostat, or a broken fan belt.
- If your temperature gauge moves to the HOT position, it's time to do something.
- If you notice steam or liquid being emitted from the front of your vehicle, it is a definite indication that the vehicle is overheating.
- If possible, pull off the road, turn off the engine, and let it cool before proceeding.
- If you can't pull off the road and if the engine has not reached the critical overheat point, turn off your air conditioner.
- In stop-and-go, slow-moving traffic, shift into NEUTRAL while stopped.
- While stopped, a slight pressure on the accelerator pedal may reduce overheating by the action of the fan on the coolant in the radiator.
- If none of these things work, turn on your heater and roll the windows down to reduce the engine's temperature by increasing the radiator capacity.
- If the temperature rise is not normal for your vehicle, pull off the road and look for the source of the trouble but DO NOT REMOVE THE RADIATOR CAP until the engine has cooled or the steam or liquid emissions have remained stopped.
- NEVER POUR COLD WATER INTO OR ONTO AN OVERHEATED ENGINE or you may crack the engine block.
- After the engine has cooled, remove the radiator cap and check the coolant level. If your auto is equipped with a surge tank, check the coolant level at that point. When the radiator cools, the overflow should return to the radiator.
- Look for leaks or breaks in the radiator, surge tank, or in the hoses, including heater as well as radiator hoses.
- Correct the problem if possible -- duct tape may sometimes be used to TEMPORARILY stop or slow a leak in a hose until you can get to a service facility to have it replaced.
- If the hose is split or ruptured near the end, sometimes you can remove the hose end using a screwdriver or pair of pliers, cut off the damaged section, and replace the hose, unless the hose is too short already.
- If a source of water is available, replace the lost fluid.
- If possible to do so, drive to the nearest service facility and have proper repairs done.
- If you are able to make temporary repairs so that you can drive to the nearest service facility, don't move the vehicle until the engine has cooled down. WARN THE ATTENDANT that the engine has been overheated so that he can take precautions to make sure he is not burned or scalded.
Loss of Oil Pressure
A sudden loss of oil pressure, if not promptly corrected, can result in extensive damage to your vehicle's engine as well as a highway breakdown.
- If the OIL PRESSURE light doesn't go out when the engine is running, or if it comes on while you are driving, you have trouble (you may not have enough oil in your engine, or your oil pump may be bad and not pumping oil through the engine).
- If the OIL PRESSURE light comes on and stays lit, pull off the road.
- Turn off the ignition and check the oil.
- Add oil before driving the car any farther.
- A spare can of oil carried in your trunk is ideal for just such an emergency.
- In an emergency, once you have filled the oil reservoir, you may drive cautiously for a few miles to the nearest service facility but no farther.
The alternator and generator make the electric current that keeps your vehicle's battery charged and operate the lights and anything else in the car that needs electricity.
- If the ALTERNATOR/GENERATOR light comes on and stays lit, something may be wrong with the electrical system.
- First check the alternator/generator belt because if this belt is loose or broken, your vehicle may also be about to overheat -- have a service facility correct the problem as soon as you can.
- If this happens on the highway, you can often run the vehicle using the electrical current from your battery alone, but you can do this only for a short distance until the battery power is exhausted.
- If you must run your vehicle for a short distance, turn off all electrical accessories (air conditioner, radio, heater) except the ignition.
- If this happens at night, the extra drain on the battery will shorten the distance you can drive, but you should be able to drive several miles to a service facility.
WIndshield Wiper Failure
Windshield wipers may fail when you need them most -- when it's raining or snowing, or you are heading into the sun.
- If you have the disappearing-type wipers, periodically check the opening to the front of your windshield -- even more frequently in the fall and winter -- removing leaves, twigs, snow, or ice.
- If you have a failure on the highway (loose wiper, motor ceases to turn wipers, blade flies off), make certain it is safe to get off the highway, then see if you can correct the problem.
- Open the window and stick your head out to see, if necessary.
- If you can't fix the wipers yourself, wait until the rain or snow has let up, then proceed with caution to the nearest service facility.
- If it is impractical to wait, you'll have to get help.
One of the most dangerous problems is a dropped driveshaft, which happens suddenly. In vehicles with front-mounted engines, the driveshaft is the long tubular device underneath your vehicle that is connected to the transmission on one end and to the differential on the other. It's purpose is to drive the wheels to propel the vehicle. Motive power will be lost, and the vehicle cannot be driven until the driveshaft is repaired.
- If the front universal joint fails, the faster the vehicle is moving the greater the danger, because the front of the driveshaft can drop and dig into the pavement, lift up the rear end of the vehicle, and flip it over.
- Your first and most important precaution is to slow down before pulling off the road to prevent the drive train from digging into the rough berm.
- To reduce the chance of this happening, have your service facility examine and lubricate the universal joints and check for possible looseness.
- Universal joints willl be obviously noisy before they fail completely, generally accompanied by a severe vibration throughout the vehicle at all speeds.
- If you ever hear a dragging noise under your vehicle, slow down, pull off the road, and look for the problem.
- If your muffler or tailpipe is dragging, you may be able to temporarily raise them using a piece of wire to hold them in place, but if it is the driveshaft, the vehicle won't move and you'll have to get assistance.
Failure of a hood latch, both primary and secondary, or improper closure of the hood and subsequent failure of the secondary latch, can result in the hood popping open while you are driving, blocking your view of the road (not as prevalent on vehicles later than 1969).
- Don't panic and don't panic-stop!
- Stick your head out the window, and ease the vehicle to the right or left, depending on the lane of traffic you're in.
- Remove your foot from the accelerator and apply the brakes slowly.
- Turn on your emergency flashers and give a hand signal to indicate that you're going to stop.
- If you cannot get off the highway (because of a bridge or guardrail, for instance), do not leave your vehicle!
- After traffic has cleared, proceed with caution to the nearest point at which you can exit the highway.
- Stop and remedy your problem.
Submersion of Your Vehicle
If your vehicle goes through a bridge railing or over an embankment into a deep body of water, the following tips may help you survive.
- Vehicles with their windows and doors closed will float for a few minutes.
- Don't try to open a door to get out because the water pressure will hold it shut.
- Windows can be rolled down easily unless you have power windows -- open them before they short out and won't open.
- If your windows won't open, try to break them with a heavy hard object or hammer made for the purpose.
- If you can't break a window and must open a door, remember that vehicles with engines in the front will sink nose first which will push some air to the rear of the vehicle near the roof, making it easier to open a door.
- None of these measures will help you if you are tossed about and knocked out because you haven't worn your safety belt.
Loss of Lug Nuts
If you notice a wobble on a wheel or hear a rattling noise coming from a wheel, especially at low speeds, the problem may be loose lug nuts or a lug nut that has come off the wheel stud and is rattling inside the hub cap or wheel cover. This problem is often caused by improper tightening of the nuts when a tire is replaced, or by faulty lug bolt threads which will not retain the lug nuts tightly.
- Take care of such a problem immediately before you lose a wheel.
- Pull off the road.
- Display warning devices.
- Remove the hub caps or wheel covers, check the tightness of all the lug nuts, and tighten all the nuts that may be loose.
- If all the lug nuts are tight, the sound could be caused by a faulty or burned-out bearing and caution should be taken in driving to the nearest service facility for repairs.
- If you've already lost more than one nut from a wheel, borrow one nut from another wheel so that you can tighten the wheels adequately, then at your first opportunity, replace all the missing lug nuts.
- If two or more of the wheel studs are too badly stripped to permit retightening of the nuts, leave the car beside the road and get help.
- Have all faulty lug nuts or lugs replaced as necessary.
Exhaust System Failures
There's nothing you can do about a blown muffler or broken tailpipe when you're out on the highway except to get the problem taken care of as soon as you can.
- Sometimes a hanger holding your muffler or tailpipe can break because of rust and corrosion.
- The muffler or tailpipe may separate and drag along the pavement.
- You may be able to hear the dragging noise and hear the loud engine noise caused by a blown muffler or one that has separated and is dragging.
- Pull safely off the road and examine your muffler and tailpipe.
- Often a temporary fix can be made by pushing the muffler/tailpipe in place or raising it and holding it in place with a piece of wire or a coat hangar.
- CAUTION: Wait for the exhaust system to cool down! You can be severly burned if you grasp a muffler or tailpipe when it is hot.
- Until the exhaust system is repaired, drive with a side window at least partially open to ensure against carbon monoxide accumulation in the passenger compartment.
Flat Tires and Blowouts
Keep good tires on your vehicle and check them frequently.
- If you're not familiar with the procedures for jacking your vehicle and changing wheels, practice these operations in the privacy of your garage or driveway and under competent supervision.
- Be especially careful of the jack and carefully follow instructions on its use (such instructions will usually be found in the trunk or spare tire well of your vehicle).
- Before jacking up the vehicle, it's a good idea to loosen the lug nuts slightly on the wheel to be changed so that the wheel can be removed easily when the vehicle is raised on the jack. If the lug nuts are not loosened, the pressure necessary to remove them may be enough to cause the vehicle to slip off the jack.
- If you have a flat tire or blowout on the highway, get a firm grip on the steering wheel and apply your brakes gently to slow down. DON'T SLAM ON THE BREAKES as sudden brakihng may throw your vehicle into a spin or otherwise out of control.
- A flat tire will be felt in the handling of the vehicle and steering may become unnatural. It is more gradual than a blowout.
- A blowout will be sudden and you'll feel it in the steering wheel. You also may hear it. You may feel a part of the vehicle dip. Control of the vehicle may be difficult.
- Pull safely off the road where you have enough room to park and get out of the vehicle without danger to yourself or without causing a traffic hazard for other motorists.
- Put on your emergency flashers.
- Don't try to change a tire on uneven or hilly ground.
Driving Through Water or in Heavy Rain or Snow
Driving through water, in heavy rain, or in snow can result in engine drownout, brake failure, and possible loss of vehicle control. People drown trying to drive across flooded roads. Hydroplaning results in loss of steering control.
- If you drive through a deep puddle -- especially if your vehicle is moving fast -- water can be thrown up into your engine compartment and cause your vehicle to stall out because of moisture on your spark plug wires, coil, or distributor.
- A vehicle moving in the other direction can cause you the same problem if it's moving too fast and throws a lot of water or road slush in case of a snowstorm onto your vehicle.
- If you encounter deep puddles or high water along the highway, drive through slowly!
- If your vehicle stalls out, try to coast to the side fo the road and wait for the engine to dry out.
- If you know the parts of your electrical system, the drying out process can be quickened by taking a dry rag and wiping the plugs, wires, and coil and by drying the inside of the distributor cap.
- If your car stalls in the middle of a puddle and you can't move it, and if you're in the vicinity of a stream that is overflowing onto the highway, be alert to the possibility of a flash flood.
- For your own safety you may have to leave the vehicle where it is and seek shelter or higher ground until the water recedes.
- After moving through water your brakes may have lost their stopping power because of submersion -- apply your brakes lightly while driving to dry out the linings and other components.
Accidents may be caused because of lack of driver control when you turn around to try to discipline unruly children.
- If you must discipline young children in your vehicle, DO NOT LET GO OF THE STEERING WHEEL AND TURN AROUND!
- Pull safely off the road, switch off the engine, and apply any discipline necessary.
- Make the children fasten their seat belts despite any objections.
Accidents have been caused by drivers losing control of their vehicles because of efforts to get rid of flies, bees, yellow jackets, wasps, or other insects that have entered the vehicle.
- Don't get frantic and try to kill an insect while driving.
- Pull safely off the road, turn off the engine, and then get rid of the insect.
- Accept the possibility of a bee sting until you can pull off the road safely -- a lot better than risking a more serious accident or injury.
- If an insect or dirt flies into one of your eyes, close that one eye and pull safely off the road before you attempt to clear the foreign matter from your eye.
- Don't try to clear your eye while driving!
- If you get foreign matter in both eyes, force yourself to keep your eyes open, despite the discomfort, and pull safely off the road, then clear your eyes.
- Another caution: Animals loose in the front seat can also interfere with attention, visibility, steering, and braking.
Clothing and Upholstery Fires
Clothing and upholstery fires are usually smoker's problems -- ashes or lighted particles may drop on your clothing or the upholstery from your cigarette, pipe, or cigar.
- Don't try to put out the fire while moving!
- Don't stop in traffic and get out of your vehicle to brush off burning ashes!
- Put up with any pain or damage involved!
- Retain control of the vehicle and pull safely off the road before attempting to cure the problem.
Fire in the Ashtray
Ashtrays are for ashes, not candy and gum wrappers.
- If you have paper in your ashtray, a cigarette or cigar that is not completely extinguished, pipe ashes, or a match not completely out, can cause a fire in your ashtray.
- If you have such a fire, close the ashtray to diminish the flames or even smother the fire.
- Then pull safely off the road and make sure the fire is out.
First Aid Supplies for Your Vehicle
The following is a list of some of the things you can carry in your trunk or glove compartment that you may find useful from time to time.
- Always maintain at least 1/2 tank of gas.
- Cell phone.
- Name, address, and phone number of someone to call in an emergency.
- Battery operated radio and batteries.
- Blankets and sleeping bag.
- Bleach for disinfecting.
- Bottled water.
- Can opener.
- Metal coffee can -- use the candle or canned heat to melt snow.
- Day pack -- to carry items, if you must leave your vehicle.
- Essential medications.
- Non-perishable foods.
- Water for three days.
- Citizens band radio.
- Money and credit cards.
- Non-perishable food stored in a coffee can.
- Outdoor clothing.
- Paper and pencils/pens.
- Plastic bags.
- Pre-moistened wipes.
- Rubber hose (short) for siphoning.
- Shoes (extra pair of good ones).
- Sleeping bag.
- Waterproof/windproof matches.
- Candles and several containers of canned heat.
- Spare fuses for the electrical system.
- Good flashlight with good batteries.
- Ice scraper.
- Snow brush.
- Pocket knife.
- Class ABC fire extinguisher.
- First aid kit and manual.
- Spare tire (with air in it).
- Traction mats.
- Tow chain or strap.
- Jack and lug wrench for changing tires.
- Flares or reflective day/night devices.
- An empty can to carry gasoline (if you run out of gas) or water (if your engine boils over and you loose your coolant). Do not store gasoline in your vehicle.
- Basic tools.
- Pliers -- useful for tightening clamps, small nuts that may work loose, and twisting wires.
- Screwdrivers -- several sizes. Make sure one is Phillips type.
- Adjustable wrench (or small set of open-end wrenches if you prefer) -- to tighten nuts and bolts that may have worked loose.
- Electrical tape -- to repair broken or frayed wires.
- Duct tape -- to temporarily stop small leaks in a hose until you can get to a service facility.
- Wire -- very useful to temporarily hold a muffler or tailpipe in place if one of the hangars breaks or falls off.
- Rags -- can be used to dry up your distributor or wet wires if your motor is drowned out in heavy rain or from driving through water.
- Battery jumper cables -- handy to help get your vehicle started if your battery is weak, especially in the winter (consult your Owner's Manual on how to use them).
- Piece of sandpaper -- useful for cleaning dirty battery terminals when the vehicle won't start.
- Can of engine oil -- nice to have when the oil light comes on and you're far from a service facility.
- Tire pump -- for use when one of your tires develops a slow leak and you'd rather drive to a service facility to have it changed than to do it yourself.
- Plastic sheet (or two large plastic garbage bags) -- for use in changing a tire in the rain or if you have to get under the vehicle to check something.
- Tire chains -- if you don't have snow tires (and even if you do).
- Steel shovel -- to help you get out of ruts and snowbanks.
- Bag (or capped bucket) of kitty litter (preferred), sand, or rock salt -- to give you something to throw under the wheels for better traction if you get stuck in ice or snow.