Serious car accidents can be devastating, but even the minor ones can be quite costly to property, drivers, passengers and anyone else who uses the road.
In the last section, you learned about the kinds of safe, defensive driving conditions and behaviors that are most likely to help you prevent accidents. And while we certainly hope that you are never involved in a collision, it’s important to know exactly what kinds of crashes are most common and what types of driving behaviors tend to result in them. Some of this information may be a little disturbing to read about, but knowing it will help you understand how crucial it is to drive defensively so you can avoid accidents.
What happens in an accident?
You’ve seen car accidents reported on the news, and you may have been in traffic that was backed up for miles because multiple lanes were blocked due to a crash. You’ve seen crumpled fenders, broken glass and maybe even – though hopefully not – a person’s body draped in a white cloth beside the road. You also may have wondered: what really happens when you crash your car? Why do some people get badly injured – or worse – in accidents that don’t appear to be that serious – at least to the untrained eye?
Crashes are all different and there are different factors that can affect the severity of the accident. This includes the kind of crash, the speed you are driving, whether you are wearing a seatbelt, whether you are the passenger or driver, whether your car has air bags, whether you hit a stationary object or another moving vehicle.
Here are the statistics: just under half of all crashes involve a vehicle hitting another vehicle. The next biggest category of collisions is when a vehicle crashes into hard, immovable, narrow objects (such as poles and trees). This second type of crash can be particularly devastating: hospitals rate major trauma of any kind as a score of 15 or above, and the average score for this type of crash is 14.6. Males tend to be more severely injured than females.
Statistics show us the different ways in which people crash on the road. The top five accident types are listed below. Some are common in fatal crashes and some are more common in minor crashes.
The rear-ender: this is the most common type of crash, and it is why tailgating is such a risk.
The side-on crash: this is otherwise known as getting “T-boned” and it tends to occur at intersections.
The head-on: this is when two cars hit each other from opposite directions.
Running off the road: this is what happens when drivers are speeding, tired or distracted.
Running off the road on a curve: this is usually caused by going too fast or over-correcting.
Understand that people who are hurt in car accidents often end up in the hospital for days, weeks or even months. Some may never fully recover and some do not survive. This is why it’s so important to remember that most crashes can be avoided altogether through safe, defensive driving.
In most cases, with proper care and caution, you will likely never experience a driving emergency. You should be aware, however, of some of the most common emergency situations and a general idea as to how to handle them. We would be unable to cover in this course every imaginable emergency that could happen, but we do want to point out a few that you should be aware of and how professional driving instructors teach racing car drivers—and us—how to cope with them.
Skid recovery techniques
We discussed skids briefly in an earlier module, but now we are going to go into more detail about different kinds of skids, how and why they happen, and how to recover from them.
Skids can be scary. But skilled drivers maintain their composure and carefully guide themselves out of skids when they occur. The reason a skid is so scary is that when you first realize it’s happening, it seems you’ve lost control of the car—and that’s exactly what has actually happened.
Imagine going around a corner to make a right turn, and your back end starts to come around too far. This is called over-steering, because you have turned the steering wheel too far. The nose of your car is now pointed too far to the right, heading toward the curb. What you need to do is carefully counter-steer to bring the car back to the direction you were trying to go.
A different kind of skid is called the under-steer skid. This can happen when you are driving too fast into a turn. Your car turns less than you intended and the front wheels lose traction. Here’s what you should do if you find yourself in a skid situation:
The first step is to ease off of the pedals. Whether your foot is on the gas or on the break, ease off. In both over-steer and under-steer situations, this by itself may be enough to stop the skid.
This is not as easy as it sounds, because it is so contrary to what we are used to doing. Usually, when you want to tell the car to stop! —stop doing what you’re doing— your foot is going to the brake, automatically. That’s habit. But now, in order to tell the car to stop doing what it’s doing, you have to resist that temptation to brake, and keep that foot off the brake!
The second step is to look where you want to go and point your wheels in that direction. Careful: the movement should be a small motion, easy and smooth. Steer where you want to go. Don’t panic and sharply turn the wheel too hard! This will only make the skid worse.
Finally, as you regain traction, gently apply a bit of brake pressure. If necessary, squeeze the pedal a bit more through the process. When the tires begin rolling again, rather than sliding sideways across the surface of the street, the car can be steered again.
Sometimes you have to brake very suddenly to avoid a hazard. Without an antilock brake system (ABS), a good emergency stop requires a careful touch. You still must push the brake pedal hard, but not so hard that you lock the wheels and cause the tires to skid.
You should try to bring the tires to the point that they have almost stopped rolling. If they completely stop, you can lose traction. If this happens, you must release brake pressure until the tires start rolling again and then reapply brake pressure.
If your car has an antilock brake system and you need to brake in an emergency, you should stomp the brake pedal to the floor. Stay hard on the pedal until the car comes to a complete stop. Remember, you can still steer and maneuver your car when the ABS is engaged.
You should practice emergency braking in an empty parking lot or a closed driving course with an experienced driver. Practice straight-line hard braking at increasing speeds. Make sure to practice carefully and safely. Without practice, braking safely in an emergency is very difficult.
We hope you are never in this situation, but in an emergency where you are at risk for crashing into another vehicle or object, you need to react quickly. You may have to steer aggressively, which is why you should always be holding the steering wheel with both hands, at the 9:00 o’clock and 3:00 o’clock positions. (In driver education, we explain the recommended position of the hands on the steering wheel— for normal driving— by asking the student to imagine the steering wheel is a clock with analog numbers. Thus, the left hand will be at 9 o’clock and the right hand will be at 3 o’clock.)
You may find that when you have obtained your driver instruction permit and are practicing with an adult, that adult may disagree with the 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock positions. They might try to correct you, claiming that the proper hand position is 10 clock and 2 o’clock. That is the position that was taught for many years, and they simply may not be aware of the relatively recent new recommendation.
When you hold the steering wheel with both hands at the 9 and 3 position, you have:
A higher degree of steering control without removing your hands from the steering wheel
A high level of arm leverage and vehicle control
An awareness of where the wheels are pointing at all times
Quicker reaction time, which improves your ability to take evasive action
Better protection of your upper body in the event your airbag deploys in a crash
Here’s one more reason why you should practice emergency maneuvers in an empty parking lot or closed course: one of the most difficult maneuvers you many need to use to avoid an accident is steering while braking. Remember, if you lock the brakes, you will lose traction and the car will not steer at all. In this situation, drivers may then erroneously turn the wheel too much to the right or left. If they release the brake before the car comes to a stop, it will dart whichever way the wheels are pointed. The benefit of an antilock brake system is that it allows you to steer even while pushing hard on the brake.
Here’s an important safety tip: make sure you know what kind of braking system your car has (you may also want to keep this in mind when shopping for a car).
Remember: in a hard braking situation, a little bit of steering goes a very long way. Many drivers overdo this part. Practice emergency braking and steering so that you are less likely to be one of those drivers.
You may have heard about this in the news. There have been cases of vehicle accelerators getting stuck, which caused the drivers to lose control of their speed. While this is not likely to happen to you, it is still important that you know what to do in this case so you will be able to safely stop the vehicle.
The first thing to do is to stay calm! Then:
Brake firmly: Remember, your brakes have lots of power. The normal foot brake should be sufficient. Do not use the hand brake (emergency brake) because it might cause a skid.
Shift to neutral gear: In a standard transmission, press the clutch first to disconnect the engine from the wheels. Put the car in neutral gear. The engine may over-rev, but you should not worry about this right now. Focus on slowing and stopping the car.
Look for an escape route: While braking, look out for an escape route on the shoulder or on the side of the road. Chose a place with enough space for you to bring the car to a stop.
As soon as the car is stopped and safe, switch off the engine.
Always do a visual inspection of your tires before you drive. And keep a close eye on your tire pressure. Why? Because a tire blowout at high speed is one of the most dangerous situations drivers may face.
The most common cause of tire blowouts is under-inflation, which is why tire pressure monitors are now mandatory on all cars built after 2007. If the low-pressure symbol on your dashboard lights up, it means one or more of your tires has lost 25 percent of its pressure. Pull over as soon as safely possible to avoid damaging or blowing out the tire (and consult your owner’s manual if you don’t know which symbol that is in your car). If you don’t know how to accurately add air to your tires, take it to a shop where someone can help you.
If your car doesn’t come with automatic tire pressure monitors, keep an eye on your tire pressure by monitoring it with the tool built for this purpose. This can be one of the hardest things for drivers to remember to do, but you should do it at least once a month.
We hope you never experience a tire blowout while you are driving, but if you do, you’ll have no doubt about what it is when it happens, because there will be a sudden very loud noise that sounds like an explosion and your car will begin to veer to the side. If you do experience this, above all, don’t panic! Here’s what you should do:
Drive through: Keep your foot on the gas; steer in the direction of the skid to drive through the blowout. If necessary, give it a bit more gas to overcome the initial drag that is pulling you to one side. You need the wheels to keep rolling to maintain control of the car.
Regain control: Gently correct your steering to bring the car back into line. When you have the car under control, start easing your foot off the gas to slow down.
Lightly brake: Do not use more than minimal braking, and pull off the road when your speed has come down. If possible, pull off so that the blown tire is away from the road to make changing the tire safer and easier.
Stop first: Do not go for the hazard lights until the car has stopped. Unless you can hit that button without looking, hitting it will take your eyes and concentration off the road. The cars behind you have seen you swerve and will get out of your way. You want to stay predictable while they do that.
Rarely does complete brake failure occur. Even so, you should be aware of what to do because the results of brake failure can be life-threatening if they do occur. There are some things you can do to slow or stop you car if the brakes fail.
Above all, do not panic and overreact. It may be hard, but you need to do all you can to maintain your composure. Here’s what you should do if you find yourself with sudden brake failure:
Take your foot off the gas.
Turn off cruise control if you had it on. You can’t rely on the brake to do this for you.
Check your brake pedal.
If you are driving and all of a sudden your brake pedal won’t press down, don’t panic. You might have something under your pedal (like a shoe or water bottle) that is in the way. Check carefully and move the object.
Your brake pedal should not depress all the way to the floor when you apply the brake! If this happens you may have a leak or other significant problem in your brake system. This is dangerous and you should not drive until you can get this fixed.
If you experience this “soft” brake action that interferes with your car’s ability to slow or stop you might be able to get the brakes to work (temporarily) by pumping them. This means pushing down and letting up on the brake pedal repeatedly until you have built up enough brake pressure to slow your car.
If that wasn’t the source of the problem, then you need to safely slow down your car. If your car has a manual transmission, work your way down to a lower gear. The engine will respond and help slow down the car. Then you can apply the emergency brake.
Keep your eyes on the road and continue to steer. Pay attention to what is in front of you, and maneuver to avoid traffic, pedestrians, and dangerous obstacles.
Warn other drivers and pedestrians. Turn your hazard lights on, and honk your horn to make others aware that there is a problem.
Look for a safe spot to pull over. Scan the road ahead for a safe area to pull over once you are able to come to a stop. If you are not able to bring the vehicle to a complete stop, look for open spaces that you can coast across without hitting anything.
Avoiding Collisions with Animals
Other cars and drivers aren’t the only things you need to worry about on the roads: Animals can cause accidents, which can lead to extensive vehicle damage and even injury to vehicle occupants. Larger animals are a real threat and can cause serious injuries or death. Some roads have warning signs posted at known crossing areas, but you should always be on the lookout for animals even when you don’t see those signs. Animals are most active at dusk and dawn; you should be especially alert during these times. Scan the roadway and the sides of the road as you are driving. If you see animals near or on the road, you should be prepared to slow down or stop.
The most important thing to remember is that you should not risk losing vehicle control when you are avoiding animals. If you do see an animal in the road ahead, don’t slam on the brakes. Keep your lane position, and honk your horn while braking in a controlled manner. Sudden panic stops are not a good idea, as they could spook the animal, causing it to suddenly dart into the path of another vehicle. Swerving to avoid the animal could cause you to lose control of your car or enter the path of another vehicle.