Every driver is taught the dangers of mishandling a car in an emergency. In drivers’ education and defensive driving courses across the country, drivers are taught, using theory and simulations, how to approach emergency driving situations. Coming face-to-face with a real emergency situation comes down to instinct. Preparing yourself for every scenario is the best way to protect yourself.
We’ve created a guide with animated visuals to walk you through how to handle emergency situations. It’s impossible to prepare yourself fully for every possible emergency scenario, but we hope that these guides will help you stay safe on the road. The most important thing to remember in an emergency situation is that keeping calm is key. Though panic is often our first instinct in a scary moment, keeping a level head allows us to think more clearly and make better judgments.
Buckle up and get ready to learn what to do in every scary driving situation.
How to handle a tire blowout
Having a tire blowout while driving can be a scary experience. The sound of the explosion alone is enough to frighten an unsuspecting driver. At almost any speed, a burst tire can be a danger to you and drivers around you. In fact, 78,000 crashes are caused by blowouts every year.
You’ll know immediately if one of your tires has blown. First, you’ll hear a loud boom or popping. That’s the sound of the tire exploding and reverberating throughout the car. You may then hear a “whoosh” as air rapidly escapes the tire. Finally, you will hear the deflated tire flapping as it hits the road. At the same time as the initial explosion, your car will likely slow down and begin to swerve left or right depending on the location of the blowout.
So what can you do if you find yourself in this scary situation while driving? Take the following steps to keep yourself safe and minimize damage:
1. Hold onto the steering wheel
If you hear the sound of a tire exploding, grip the steering wheel tightly with both hands. Gripping the wheel will help you stay in control of the car and minimize the chance of swerving into oncoming traffic or off the road.
2. Keep your foot on the gas
Your instinctual reaction will be to immediately begin braking after a blowout. It’s easy to panic after hearing a tire blowout, but slamming the brakes can make the situation more dangerous by adding strain to the car.
Instead, gently depress the gas pedal to allow you to control the vehicle. For the first few seconds after a blowout, try to maintain speed by lightly accelerating.
3. Keep the car moving in a straight line
It’s likely that immediately following a blowout, your car will begin to swerve as it reacts to the sudden jolt. It’s important to maintain a good grip on the wheel as you prevent the car from moving too far in either direction. If you need to course-correct, do it gently. Otherwise, keep the car moving in a straight line as much as possible.
4. Allow the car to slow down gradually
Take your foot off the gas and brake pedals. As your car continues to move, you should allow the burst tire to slow the car naturally. It will drag and flap along, causing friction on the road and preventing the car from maintaining speed. As your car slows down and becomes easier to control, turn on your hazard lights to warn other drivers around you that you will soon be pulling over.
If you’re traveling at high speeds, you’ll need to act quickly to warn other drivers that your speed is slowing. Turn your hazards on immediately and move to the right lane or shoulder as soon as it is safe to do so.
5. Begin braking and pull over
Once your car has slowed to under 25 miles per hour, it is likely safe to use the brakes and find a place to pull over. If you haven’t done so already, turn your hazard lights on to signal other drivers around you. Gently depress the brake pedal and guide your car to the farthest lane to the right, then off the road at a slow, safe speed. If you are on a highway and closer to the left shoulder, you can also pull over there, but should take extra care exiting your vehicle.
How to escape a sinking car
“Turn around, don’t drown.” That’s the catchphrase of the National Weather Service, warning the public of the dangers of flood waters. Each year, more deaths occur due to flooding and water submersion than any other weather-related incident. According to the CDC, more than half of all flood-related deaths happen when a vehicle is driven into or accidentally caught in rising flood waters.
Of course, the best way to avoid the dangers of floods is to minimize travel during heavy rains and never drive into a body of water, even if it looks shallow.
Perhaps even more frightening is the idea of sliding off a road or bridge into water below. Rain, ice and distracted driving can all cause you and your car to plummet off an elevated roadway, leaving you seconds before you hit the water.
As scary as these scenarios sound, you can survive these situations if you act quickly. Take these steps if you find yourself trapped in a sinking or submerged car:
1. Stay calm
Your first instinct will be to panic. As your adrenaline levels rise, your body will enter “fight or flight” mode, sparking intense fear. To survive, you should keep your wits about you. Panicking will only waste time and you need to move quickly to get out.
2. Open a window as quickly as possible
When your car becomes trapped in rising water, you will be unable to open your doors. Initially, the water outside the car can put up to 600 pounds per square inch of pressure on the window, meaning you will not be able to exert enough strength to push it open.
Instead, open a window as quickly as possible—if you can, before you hit the water.
3. Immediately remove your seat belt
To escape, you’ll need free range of motion within your car. If you find yourself caught in a flood, remove your seatbelt immediately. If you fall from a bridge into water, remove your seatbelt after hitting the water.
In both cases, it is important to hold onto something within the car. The impact of water can be as strong as a solid object and as a result, you’ll likely be jolted. Hold onto the steering wheel to keep yourself stable after removing your safety belt.
4. Remember to breathe
When water begins to enter your car, the water level will rise quickly. You should begin taking long, deep breaths to oxygenate your body. Don’t worry about holding your breath until the water reaches your chin. Before then, you should focus on escape while continuing to breath deeply. If or when the water level reaches your chin, take a slow, deep breath and hold it in.
It’s important to know that though you may not be able to open your door now, once the car is fully submerged, it will be easier to open the door. If it’s possible to wait for total underwater submersion, this route of escape is simple enough, though you’ll need to hold your breath and wait.
5. Break the window if necessary
Before your car is fully submerged, you won’t be able to open your doors. However, if the electric system has failed, that also leaves you unable to open a window.
A vehicle multi-tool or window-breaking device will allow you to quickly and safely shatter a window and exit your sinking vehicle. It’s wise to always carry such a device when you drive, but if you do not have one of these tools when you need it, you may be able to break your window using a headrest.
How to break a car window with a headrest
- Detach a headrest from your seat and use one of the metal prongs to break the window.
- You likely won’t be able to hit the window hard enough to shatter it from the inside. Instead, wedge one of the metal prongs from the headrest into the space where your window retracts.
- Push it into the space as far as possible, then pull the headrest towards you like a lever. This will put tension on the window glass laterally, resulting in a break.
- Since most modern cars are equipped with safety glass, it will shatter and crumble.
- Push the broken glass outwards and away from you to clear debris from the window before pulling yourself through the opening and away from the vehicle.
While doing all this, remember that you need to move quickly. If you are fully submerged and are holding your breath, you likely have less than a minute to escape before you can no longer hold air in your body. Working with determination to escape your car will help you move more efficiently and stay calmer in the process.
6. Get out and float up
When you’ve found a way to escape the car, get as far from it as possible. Make sure you’re above the sinking car: you don’t want to be trapped underneath it as it continues to sink down. If you moved quickly and calmly, you should still have enough air in your body to get to the surface of the water.
Once you’re out of the vehicle, allow the air in your body to float you upwards towards the surface. If you’re tired or nearly out of breath, swimming may tire you further. It is also helpful to let your body float upward if the water is dark, murky, or you aren’t sure which way is up. Once you’ve got your bearings, swim to the surface.
What to do when hydroplaning
Hydroplaning occurs when a car’s wheels do not properly grip the surface of the road. It is most common during or after rain and can cause the car to skid or slide across the road with no traction.
Hydroplaning can be a scary situation, especially if experienced during a heavy storm or in darkness. But there are steps you can take to safely pull your call out of a hydroplaning event.
1. Avoid the brakes
Similar to a tire blowout, a normal first reaction to hydroplaning will be to immediately brake. However, braking can cause the rear wheels to lock and may result in fishtailing or a spin out.
2. Guide the car gently
What you do next depends on what type of vehicle you are driving. It is important to know if your vehicle is front or rear wheel drive, if it has an anti-lock braking system (ABS) and if it is equipped with traction control.
If you have:
- Front wheel drive with or without ABS and traction control or rear wheel drive with ABS and traction control: continue accelerating lightly and look for an open space to safely move your car into. Steer in the direction of the open space while continuing to gently depress the gas pedal.
- Rear wheel drive without ABS or traction control: ease off the gas pedal and steer in the direction of open space.
If you are unsure what type of car you are driving, it is most important to know that whatever you do, you should not do it to the extreme. Do not accelerate quickly and do not stomp on the brake pedal. Take every action with caution and remember that in situations like this, a gentle hand is best.
3. Put your hazard lights on
It’s important to signal to other drivers that you are experiencing a loss of control in your car. Once you have moved your car into a safe, open space, preferably in the right lane or shoulder of the road, turn your hazards on to warn others around you that you will be stopping.
4. Get off the road
When safe, pull your car off the road and come to a stop. You’ll likely be a bit shaken up, so taking a few moments to calm yourself before getting back on the road can help you be safer on the rest of your journey.
How to drive on icy roads
Those who have driven in cold, wet conditions know the dangers of ice on the road. Driving on ice can be extremely dangerous if not approached properly and can result in sliding, fishtailing and spinouts.
Most ice-related car accidents are a result of driving too fast for the conditions. Driving at a safe speed on ice (between 40–50 mph on highways and between 15–25 mph in city), avoiding sudden changes in direction and hard braking or accelerations can help prevent losing control of your vehicle.
If you do find yourself sliding across ice in your car, take these steps to correct the movement and pull out of the fishtail safely.
1. Don’t slam on the brakes
If there’s one thing to know by now, it’s to never slam on your brakes. Like with other scary driving situations, braking too hard can exacerbate the harsh movements of a car and potentially cause further damage. In fact, braking can practically cause a slide across ice. For slide correction to work properly, your wheels must be turning freely.
2. Turn into the slide
Next, turn your front wheels in the same direction as the slide. For example, if your rear end is sliding to the right, you should turn your front wheels to the right. If your rear slides to the left, turn the front wheels to the left. Turning into the slide in this way will help to minimize the erratic movement of the car.
3. Look in the direction you want to go
It’s helpful to keep your eyes forward and looking in the direction you’d like the car to go. It’s important to note that a car will rarely slide in only one direction. An oscillation effect frequently occurs when a car is fishtailing: once your car begins to respond to your turning of the wheel, it will snap back in the other direction. This can occur several times before the fishtailing stops. Be prepared to correct the slide more than once.
What to do if your brakes fail
Driving downhill and hitting the brakes, only to find they aren’t working is every driver's nightmare. You suddenly find yourself in an uncontrolled vehicle with no way of stopping. But it is possible to safely stop your car even if the brake pedal doesn’t work.
The following steps will help you regain control of your car and bring it to a safe halt.
1. Stop accelerating
If your brakes fail, the only way to stop will be to slow down first. Take your foot off the gas pedal to begin slowing the car down.
2. Move to a safe position on the road
You need to give yourself the time and space to slow your car down once your brakes have failed. Look around you for enough open space to move into where you’ll be able to safely slow down. If possible, the right lane or road shoulder are both good choices. Remember to signal to other drivers by using blinkers or hazard lights.
If traveling on a highway, the most important thing to remember is that you need plenty of space to bring your car to a stop. Begin signaling immediately with your horn, blinkers, or hazard lights while moving into the safest position possible.
3. Slowing down
If your car has anti-lock brakes (ABS), pressing the pedal completely to the floor will most likely engage the system. You should feel a strong vibration in the pedal, signaling ABS is working properly.
If you drive a car without ABS, you can pump the brake pedal to rebuild hydraulic fluid pressure behind the pedal. If you don’t feel an effect after three or four pumps, you should engage the emergency brake.
If you need to apply the emergency brake, do so gradually. Pulling too quickly on the brake lever can put strain on the braking system and may cause a rollover. Once you begin engaging the emergency brake, your car may skid. Brace yourself and maintain a firm grip on the steering wheel.
If you’re traveling at a high speed on a freeway or interstate, you may need to resort to using friction to slow your car. Move safely into the appropriate lane and look for a guardrail or divider to help you slow down. Approach at a shallow angle and gently bring the car’s side up against the barrier. This friction will help to slow down the car. If you must use this method, be sure you've properly warned other drivers around you by honking, flashing your lights, and using hazard signals.
4. Get off the road
Once you’ve slowed your car down to a manageable speed of less than 20 miles per hour, pull off the road and come to a safe stop. Look ahead of you and be sure there’s enough room to finish slowing down before changing lanes.
If you need to stop quickly and are still traveling with speed, you may need to consider a crash landing. Look for shrubs, bushes, tall grass or sand that provide a gentler stop. Avoid traveling head on into trees, objects or other vehicles.
With driving comes the possibility of danger. We’re all taught the textbook rules of emergencies while driving, but they are never enough to prepare you when you’re faced with a scary driving situation in real life. Instead, we hope this guide helps you visualize and understand the necessary steps you should take if you find yourself in one of these scenarios.
Overall, there are a few key takeaways to remember:
- Your gut reaction may not be the right one
- Stay calm
- Never slam on the brakes
- React quickly and efficiently
- Let others know you’re in danger
- Get to safety as safely as possible
We hope you never need to use the information from this guide to save your life. If you do, we hope it helps keep you safe. Prevention is critical when it comes to scary driving situations — luckily for you, there are many ways to prevent emergencies. Keep your car in good condition by having it serviced regularly, stay up-to-date on the latest traffic and weather information before getting in the car, and keep an updated copy of your car insurance paperwork with you at all times.
Always be prepared: Take a defensive driving course
You’re first in line at a red light, calmly waiting for the green, maybe even enjoying the music or scenery, when out of the corner of your eye, you see a car drive right up next to you. There’s no designated lane for the car, but the aggressive driver keeps inching forward, jockeying for position, and you can just feel it—as soon as the light changes, you know the driver will gun it and try to cut you off. You wouldn’t be alone in raised hackles, but in these kinds of situations, you really have two choices: once the light changes you can step on it and block the car from merging into your lane ahead of you, or you can take a deep breath or two and choose to drive defensively. When the light changes and the other driver predictably races ahead, you can simply choose to let them go. It might not be easy to do—after all, the other driver is clearly in the wrong, but as our mother used to warn, “It’s possible to be dead right.”
We hear a lot about aggressive driving and the dangers it poses, but its safer counterpart, defensive driving, gets considerably less attention.
Driving defensively: more than just playing by the rules
From the National Safety Council’s Defensive Driving course: defensive driving is “driving to save lives, time, and money, in spite of the conditions around you and the actions of others.”
- Plan ahead for the unexpected: scan the road for exit points and know where other cars are on the road in case you need to swerve or stop quickly
- Control your speed: neither too fast nor too slow, you should aim to drive at the average speed of other cars
- Remain mentally engaged with the driving task in case you need to react to other drivers’ mistakes
- Do not expect other drivers to do what you think they should do—this includes stopping at red lights and stop signs, yielding, and following other traffic laws
- Respect other users of the roadway (ahem, cyclists!) and share the road
- Be aware of driving in special road and weather conditions
- Be alert and avoid distractions, e.g., cell phone use, eating
- Never assume that other drivers are sober or alert, and follow the rules of the road at all times
- Know your vehicle’s stopping distance
- Look out for environmental hazards and vehicle emergencies
- Understand and follow right-of-way laws
And finally, aim to not escalate bad situations or provoke other drivers. In other words, learn to let slights and unfair moves go. It can be hard to take the high road, especially if you’re tired, you’ve been in the car for a while, or another driver is clearly driving unlawfully. And, some environments do create challenges. Take city driving: often, if you’re not making power moves, you’re not going to get anywhere. But just remember, your ultimate goal is keeping yourself and your passengers safe.
Save some green with defensive driving, too
If you’re still not convinced defensive driving is valuable, maybe your wallet will change your mind: most insurance companies, in almost every state, offer insurance discounts for customers who complete an approved defensive driving course. You could save between 5 and 15 percent on your premium each year (depending on your driving record, age, and other demographics), just by taking a defensive driving course. And if you’ve gotten a traffic ticket, you could reduce the number of points on your license, and even avoid an insurance rate hike by taking a defensive driving course. For more info on your state’s requirements, look here.
But even if you don’t want to take a course, consider including some of the defensive maneuvers and practices we’ve discussed here—it could save your life.