September 29, 2009 8:48 AM | By Tom Wilson, MSN Autos

Driver's survival guide



A guide to escaping the unthinkable -- it might just save your life.

Escape the unthinkable (© Photo: Stephen C. Host, The Canadian Press)

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 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. When such threats occur, it'll take some sang-froid and a bit of knowledge to escape serious injury or even death.

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, Ariz. Car control is the emphasis of Bondurant's Executive Protection/Anti-Kidnapping course, which is a natural extension of its many racing curricula.

Gallery: Driver's survival guide

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 . . .

Defuse a persistent road-rager

Defuse a persistent road-rager (© Photo: Corbis)

Road rage is a serious and very real hazard. In a society that moves about by piloting big metal boxes, occasionally things are bound to get dicey between people. It almost goes without saying, but you should avoid getting into any situation that might incite road rage (read: keep your fingers to yourself). But if you happen to become involved in a situation where another driver is following behind you in a fit of rage with no sign of relief, the best way to resolve the matter is to immediately disengage in any number of ways.

It might seem simplistic, but getting out of the other person's driving line by changing lanes, slowing down, turning a corner or exiting the freeway will more often than not be enough action to end the situation.

If those actions bring no resolution and you are being deliberately followed by a rager, continue driving to a nearby police station, courthouse or hospital -- wherever law enforcement might be present. The proximity of the local constabulary will usually dissuade the rager from any further activity, especially when he or she realizes that things could balloon into a legal headache, up to and including a night's stay in the think tank.

Video: How to avoid road rage

Flee from a carjacker

Flee from a carjacker (© Photo: Bushnell, Soifer, Getty Images)

Most carjacking incidents happen within a few kilometres of the victim's home, and men more often than women are the victims. Regardless of these facts, 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 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

Escape from a car under water (© Photo: David Greedy, Getty Images)

If your car becomes submerged under water, 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. 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

Drive out of a wildfire

If the road is clear and you have visibility, you can drive out of a wildfire. But if you can't see, don't drive.
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 conditions permit.

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; the thought of burning to death is a particularly grisly peril. 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.

Ford high water

Ford high water (© Photo: Roberto Schmidt, AFP, Getty Images)

Eighty per cent of flood-related deaths occur when people drive into flooded roadways.

Fraught with invisible or difficult-to-gauge hazards -- such as water depth, speed, and submerged hazards -- fording your Ford is best avoided, if at all possible. But if you must, Burke says that the situation is probably not dire when wading through water no higher than, say, 30 cm or a foot. The trouble is that modern vehicles ingest engine air considerably lower than older vehicles did, and you really don't want to drown your engine.

Burke suggests draping a tarp or poncho across the vehicle's grille, pinching it in place with the hood, before heading into the water. Often the radiator fan will suck the tarp against the grille, helping to form the desired water barrier. Use a lower gear for increased power, and drive through the water at a moderate speed.
The goal is to form a bow wave and its attendant air pocket just behind the grille and front wheels. Keep the water below the hood, and above all hold a steady speed, but don't punch the throttle. That will upset the bow wave and could dig in the front tires.

Beware of moving water, though. There's a real danger of turning your economy car into a watercraft especially if the water tops the tires. Small vehicles float like corks at first, and if the water is moving it will take you downstream before you can adjust your yachting cap. If that happens, you'll have a real emergency on your hands, with a distinct possibility of rolling and tumbling.

Handle a high-speed blowout

Handle a high-speed blowout (© Photo: Spike Mafford, Getty Images)

The best way to handle a blowout is to avoid one in the first place. Proper inflation and care of your car's tires as well as making sure the suspension is properly aligned greatly reduces the chance of tire wear that leads to a blowout. Also, make sure they don't get too worn before replacing.

If a blowout at speed does occur, the key is being aware of what is happening with the traffic flow around you. Because instantaneous blowouts often happen at higher speeds, the first reaction in this scenario might be to slam on the brakes. Resist this impulse. By slamming on the brakes right away you could actually accentuate the initial reaction of the vehicle and lose control completely. Steering slightly in the opposite direction that the car wants to veer will help you maintain control.

Then, start applying firm steady pressure on the brake pedal as you make your way safely to the side of the road. With a manual transmission, you also want to downshift as the vehicle begins to lose speed. If your car is an automatic, shift it into second or low gear. These actions will serve to slow your vehicle down even further.
Getting to the shoulder might be harder said than done. If you are not in the lane closest to the shoulder of the road, you can signal, honk your horn or activate your brake lights by pumping the brake pedal lightly. All these actions will serve as warnings to any cars behind you that something is amiss.

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