Driving Emergencies — Avoidance & Survival

By Alex Perdikis

Modern cars are safer than ever, but that doesn’t mean you won’t face an emergency situation when you drive. You might be a great driver, but there are people on the road who are not. And, you certainly can’t control Mother Nature.

Sometimes bad things happen. Often, your chances of avoiding a serious injury and surviving depend on how well you prepare beforehand. You can’t control everything when you drive, but there are steps you can take now to lower the odds of having a serious accident.

Time for Review

Even if you’re an experienced driver, a refresher course about how to handle car malfunctions could save your life. Follow these safe-handling tips if your car suddenly acts up:

  • Headlights stop working. Press the dimmer switch a couple of times to see if that works. If it doesn’t, do the same with the headlight switch. If the lights don’t come on, pull off to the side and turn your hazard lights on. Call for help.
  • Power steering fails. Prepare to use extra muscle to steer. Turn to the side of the road and stop when it’s safe. If the engine cuts out, you’ll have to apply extra brake pressure to stop the car.
  • Brakes fail. This is probably one of the most frightening experiences a driver can have. First, downshift. If you have regular brakes, immediately pump the brake in rapid succession to build up brake fluid pressure. If you’ve pumped more than four times to no avail, use the parking brake to stop.
  • Tire blowouts. Resist the urge to slam on your brakes. Firmly grip the steering wheel, remove your foot from the accelerator and let the car slow gradually. As you slow down, pull to the side of the road and stop. Activate your emergency lights.
  • Sudden acceleration. If your car accelerates suddenly, put it in neutral. If that doesn’t slow you down, turn the ignition off. Pull to the side of the road as soon as it’s safe.


“Reduce the chances of experiencing these types of malfunctions by properly maintaining your car.” — Alex Perdikis


Follow the schedule in the owner’s manual for oil and fluid changes, tuneups and filter replacement. Keep a close eye on your tires. Rotate tires as directed by the manufacturer and replace when necessary.

What’s the No.1 Way to Survive an Accident?

The No.1 way to survive an accident is not to have one at all. If you drive defensively, concentrate on your surroundings and follow the basic precepts of smart driving, you significantly reduce the odds of having an accident.

Follow these proactive driving tips to avoid accidents:

1. Look far, far ahead. Concentrate on the road ahead and use your peripheral vision to stay in your own lane. You’re probably asking yourself, “How far ahead is enough?”

Here’s a simple trick — take a dry-erase marker, sit in the driver’s seat of your car and look straight ahead. With the marker, draw a line across the windshield a tad below your line of vision. Your eyes should stay above the line when you drive except for a brief glance below now and then.

If you’re in traffic, look through the windshield of the car ahead of you for a long view. It also helps to position your car slightly to the left of the driver in front of you. That way, you can see what’s going on farther down the road.

2. Beware of intersections. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), over a third of vehicle crashes occur at intersections. Navigating an intersection is not the time to let your guard down.

Intersections are particularly dangerous for pedestrians, bicycle riders, motorcyclists and those in small cars. Why is that? Modern vehicle designs reduce a driver’s view of smaller objects.

Even so, it’s your fault if you hit a person, bicycle, motorcycle or smaller car. If you do, it means you didn’t look well enough.

When you turn at an intersection, brake completely. Look where you want to go before you turn the wheel. Check your side windows and mirrors and only turn when you’re confident the way’s clear.

If you’re driving through the intersection, protect yourself from distracted drivers who run through stop signs or red lights. Look left and right and through the side windows before you enter. Remember to leave enough room between you and the car in front of you, in case it slows to make a turn.

3. Perfect your off-the-road/back-on-the-road technique. Single car accidents account for a quarter of accident fatalities, according to the NHTSA. Distracted and drunken driving account for some of that total, but often a driver simply panics and overcorrects.

If, for whatever reason, you find yourself driving with two wheels off the road, steer straight and release the accelerator. Remain calm and slowly steer back on the road.

What If It Happens Anyway?

If you drive long enough, chances are you will be involved in an accident. It can happen even when you do everything right. Prepare for the “just in case” by making sure your phone is fully charged before you get in the car. Keep a survival kit with food, water and first aid equipment in the trunk. Maybe with a little luck, you won’t have to use them.

Alex Perdikis, Koons of Silver Spring general manager and owner, lives in Chevy Chase with his wife and daughters.