Few happenings are as heart-stopping as a mechanical failure while you are driving. My dad was a practical, rational engineer and the best driver I’ve ever known, and he mailed me the following tips originated by the Motor Matters News Service* many years ago. I know he would approve of me passing them along in hopes it might help just one person somewhere, some time.
First rule: don’t panic. Do not slam on the brakes, this could result in a skid. If you’re on a highway and the traffic is light, tap the gas pedal a couple of times to see if it will spring back to its normal position. If this fails, try to pry the pedal up with the toe of your shoe. Maybe a floor mat is bunched up under the pedal. Don’t reach down yourself, ask your passenger if you have one, otherwise you’re liable to lose control of the car.
If the pedal is still jammed, direct your car to the right-hand shoulder of the road, leave the car in gear and turn off the ignition. You’ll lose power in your steering wheel so be prepared to use some muscle to keep control.
Now’s the time to apply a steady pressure on the brakes, which will help reduce the sudden stiffness you’ll feel in the steering wheel. Do not pump the brakes since they will lose some of their capacity. If you find yourself slowing too fast to get over to a safe place, shift into neutral.
If your accelerator gets stuck in the midst of heavy traffic and you can’t make it easily to the right-hand shoulder, shift into neutral if your car is an automatic (or step on the clutch if a stick shift). Do not turn the ignition off but do step on the brake until you’ve come to a complete stop. Once stopped, immediately turn off the engine or you’ll do a great deal of damage.
Inspect your accelerator pedal or have it checked out before returning to the road. Maybe the return spring has broken or possibly the linkage needs a little oil.
If your brakes freeze while driving, pumping them gently should always be your first reaction.
If you’re on the highway, head for the shoulder where a rougher road surface can help you slow down. Reach for the hand brake and apply it very slowly: too quickly will cause you to spin out. Then shift down through the gears, one gear at a time. This will cause the engine to drag and slow the car. If your wheels lock while applying the hand brake, release it for a moment, then pull on it once more.
If you’re going downhill and you cannot stop the car, look for a curb, a guardrail, bushes, a ditch, or a banked curb to help you slow down. Your car will end up a mess, but you won’t.
LOSS OF STEERING
If you have forgotten to check your power steering fluid, you could experience steering loss. Fortunately, this is a pretty rare occurrence but it can happen, and it means your power steering mechanism has failed. You may retain some control over the steering wheel but the difference in “feel” may be so marked it can throw you off and you’ll panic. Do not move your hands. Keep a firm grip on the wheel until you have brought the car to the shoulder and stopped.
A common summer problem, overheated engines are often the result of using an air conditioner while in bumper-to-bumper traffic. The best thing to do is to pull over and allow the car to cool down on its own. This will take several hours, or ideally overnight.
Don’t take the radiator cap off until it is completely cooled or you could get blistered by the hot vapor. Do not pour cold water into an overheated radiator, otherwise you could crack the engine block.
If you suspect the engine is beginning to overheat, turn off the air conditioning and turn the heater to full blast (roll down your windows). During traffic stops, shift into neutral while applying slight pressure on the gas pedal. This increase in the engine’s idling speed can help cool things down. If possible, try to get to a more open roadway where you can maintain steady speed that will keep the fan moving air over the engine. If this is not possible, watch carefully for overheating and prepare to stop.
After any road emergency, find a repair shop that take care of the problem before finishing your trip.
* Note: I can’t find an author or any source for Motor Matter News Source to give them credit, so I’m sharing it with my dad. In my mind anyway, he earned it. And, I want to mention that not one of these safety topics was ever covered in my driver’s ed training.