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Is Your First Reaction to an Emergency Situation to Slam on the Brakes?

by Charles Ofria

Did anyone ever pull out in front of you because they obviously did not see you comingand then, when they realized you were there, slam on the brakes stopping right in yourpath?

If that driver had just hit the gas instead of the brakes, he would have gotten out ofyour way and you may not have given it a second thought. After all, every driver at onetime or another has done something stupid; but, if they realized it and reacted properly,they came away with nothing more than a red face.

If your first reaction to any emergency is to slam on the brakes, then you have somework to do on your driving skills. A panic stop, under most conditions, should be the lastresort because you risk locking up all four wheels and losing steering control. In manysituations you can steer around an obstacle more easily than trying to stop before youreach it. Training yourself to react properly to each situation in the split second youhave to make a decision is the key to becoming a safe driver.

The first step in this training program is to know the limits of your car. Find adeserted road or an empty parking lot and try a few emergency maneuvers. Practice thesemaneuvers both on a dry day and on a day with heavy rain. The more familiar you becomewith your car and the more confidence you have in your ability to control it, the betteryou will be at avoiding accidents.

First, a few cautions. Make sure your seat belt is securely fastened.Make sure there is plenty of room for each of these maneuvers with a good margin for errorand there is no other traffic around that could be startled by your sudden changes indriving patterns. If you are a new driver, have a more experienced driver or a drivinginstructor accompany you to help evaluate your performance. Remember, your safetyis your responsibility. You must use your own good judgment to make sure conditions aresafe for each of these maneuvers. If you do not feel comfortable with any of thesemaneuvers, then do not attempt them without an experienced driving instructor accompanyingyou.

The reason you are doing these maneuvers is to gain experience and confidence in yourabilities and to know what to expect from your car when a real emergency occurs.

  • Try a panic stop. First check your mirror to make sure no one is behind you; then try to stop the car as short as you can from about 30 miles per hour. Don't do this more than a few times in a row without letting the brakes cool off. If you find your car skidding sideways, especially in the rain, try releasing the brakes and then immediately reapplying them. Notice how you quickly regain steering control. Now, try pumping the brakes in the rain. By pumping the brakes, you maintain steering control while stopping in the shortest distance. That is the principle behind anti-lock brakes which can "pump" the brakes at the rate of about ten times per second. (Note: If your car has anti-lock brakes, then the proper procedure is to just stand on the brakes and let the anti-lock system do the pumping for you.)
  • Try swerving from one lane to another. Warning: When performing this maneuver, keep in mind that certain vehicle types, such as sport utility vehicles, are inherently unstable and may tip over when turned sharply. The best way to avoid many accidents is to steer around an obstacle. If you are in the left or right lane on a highway and you find the traffic suddenly stopped in front of you, the best course of action might be to steer onto the shoulder or safety lane rather than panic stop. Even if you think you have enough room to stop, the person behind you may not react as fast and hit you in the rear, possibly causing a chain reaction accident.
    Make sure there is more than enough room in case you misjudge your car's ability and that there are no cars along side of you or to the rear. See how your car responds to sudden changes in direction. Remember, you're doing this so that in a real emergency, you won't be caught off-guard by your car's handling ability and lose control.
  • Step on the gas hard while coming around a turn. Only try this in an empty parking lot while it is raining. If you have a front wheel drive car, it will probably react by going straight until you let go of the gas. If you have rear wheel drive, the car will probably go into a spin as the rear tires break loose. This response can get you into serious trouble if it happens on the road and you didn't expect it. By practicing like this in a parking lot, you'll be able to recognize and prevent a spin by letting up on the gas.

Learn how to see things in slow-motion. By that I mean watch a potential situationunfold and react to it as it happens, split-second by split-second, saving any thought ofpanic until the danger is past. After that, you may have to pull over to catch your breathand let your heart slow down, but at least you'll be out of trouble. If you have ever beenin a close call, you probably know what is meant by "everything happened in slowmotion." All I'm saying is, use this effect to your advantage, and the best way to dothat is to not panic.

As you drive, try visualizing what you would do and what options you have if certainsituations occur.

  • If that car at the stop sign suddenly pulls out into your path
  • If the car in front of you suddenly stops
  • If the door opens on that parked car you are approaching
  • If you see a car coming at you in your lane on a two lane country road

Be observant. Remember, accidents happen because the participants did not expect them.The best ways to avoid accidents are to anticipate them and be ready to respond; know thehandling characteristics and limitations of your car; and above all don't panic.

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