Traffic Cop: You Need to Stop That!

I was taught that if the accelerator stuck or the breaks failed to put the car in neutral and use the hand break. Is this correct? A friend turned off the key – and that locks the steering wheel on my car- In big letters, please write an article on what to do.

The CHP a couple of years ago lost an officer and his family when this situation with the accelerator being stuck happened to him.  Each vehicle is a little different as to what you may want to do to come to a safe stop.  The general rules are; first, try to hit the pedal to make sure nothing is forcing it down.• Next, PUT THE CAR IN NEUTRAL IMMEDIATELY, and gently start to brake, being aware of the traffic around you, and pull the car to the side of the street or road as soon as possible. • The last resort is turning off the ignition, but you have to make sure that you do not lock the steering wheel. You will lose your power in the brakes and steering. DO NOT try to drive the vehicle, as it will rev the engine to a dangerous level.  With today’s vehicle breaking systems, you should be able to come to a stop and take the vehicle out of gear.

Here’s how to control your car safely if your brakes go out.

Be Calm in a Stressful Situation, Don’t panic!

Take your foot off the gas, and turn off cruise control (if on). Cruise control systems should turn off as soon as you touch the brake or clutch, but make sure it’s switched off.

Pay attention to how your brake pedal feels.  If your brake pedal is soft and goes to the floor, you may have low fluid, a faulty master cylinder or problems with your drums or calipers. You may be able to rebuild some braking pressure by pumping the brakes (see the next step).

If your brake pedal is hard and does not move, something in your brake system may have seized or you may have an obstruction under the pedal. Try to feel with foot (or have a passenger look) to see whether you have something under the brake pedal.

”Pump your brakes”.  Pumping your brakes several times may rebuild enough pressure in the braking system for you to stop.  This may take a while, so keep trying.  You should do this even if your car is equipped with ABS as the ABS is only activated when your car is braking too hard, which won’t be  the problem if your brakes have failed. Shift into low gear. Shifting into lower gears helps slow you by using your engine to slow the car.

If you have a manual transmission, downshift quickly. Be careful not to downshift too fast unless you need to slow the car as soon as possible; rapid downshifts into first or second gear can cause you to lose control. Go into the lowest gear you can, and try to downshift again once the vehicle slows a bit. Keep working down through the gears.

If you have an automatic transmission, downshift a gear at a time into low range (generally labeled as “1” on the shifting mechanism).

If you have tap-to-shift, shift into manual “M” (generally to the right or left of “Drive” on console-shift vehicles or the bottom gear on column-shift vehicles) and press the minus button to shift down. Again, if you can’t go directly into the lowest range, try gradually shifting down.

‘Use the emergency brake’.  The emergency brake, or parking brake, can usually stop a vehicle, although it will take longer than usual to come to a stop because it only stops the rear wheels.

Apply the brake (depending on your vehicle this is done either by pulling up on the handle or pushing down on the pedal) slowly and steadily. Your emergency brake can lock your tire if applied too hard or too fast, especially at high speed. If you pull up the brake quickly, you may lose control of your vehicle. To prevent this, use the release button (if your car has one) as you apply the emergency brake. This allows you to modulate the pressure with which you are applying the brake. If you feel or hear your tires lock, release a small bit of pressure from the brake application and hold it there.

If you have a hand brake, keep the release button engaged.

If you have a foot brake, hold the release lever as you push down on the brake

If you have a foot brake with a push-to-release system, squeeze down very, very slowly. If your tires lock up, release the brake and either try again, not applying as much pressure as before, or move on and try something else! Remember, the most important thing is to stay calm so that all of your options are open to you.

‘Keep your eyes on the road’ and continue to steer.  Pay attention to what’s in front of you, and maneuver to avoid heavy 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. Be sure to know the location of the hazard light button prior to such a situation.  While they may not be able to figure out what the problem it is, a warning should cause most people to proceed with caution and pay attention to what your vehicle is doing.

‘Slow the vehicle however you can’.  If the above measures fail to stop you, or if you must stop very quickly, do whatever you can.  Ideally, you could use a runaway truck ramp, but as these are not particularly common, you’ll probably have to improvise.  Keep in mind, however, that these techniques can be very dangerous, especially at high speeds, and should only be used as last resorts.

Use friction to slow your vehicle.  Driving through gravel or dirt (such as you might find right off the side of the road) can slow your vehicle considerably. Be very cautious when using this technique. Sudden terrain changes — especially if only under the wheels on one side of the car — can cause the car to flip, and may cause serious injury or death to yourself or others.

Use guardrails to slow your vehicle. Cement dividers are built pear-shaped so that contact is made with the wheels, not with the precious metal and paint of your automobile. Applying friction to the rubber on your wheels will slow the car considerably without harming other portions of your vehicle. You can also gently sideswipe whatever is available.

Use terrain to your advantage.  Try to seek out inclines that you can go up.  If this does not bring your car to a stop, be prepared to do some reverse driving ”and/or” use the emergency brake at the appropriate time.

Small trees and shrubbery will slow your vehicle when all else fails. Try to put your vehicle through the center of a line of shrubs or saplings, being careful not to pick a tree that is too heavy for your car to go through. Trees with trunks over 4 inches (116 mm) are considered dangerous to occupants of motor vehicles. Large trees can be fatal.

Hit the back of another car. While obviously not a first choice, it will slow your vehicle. If you’re going to do so, try to warn the driver in front of you by honking your horn.  Try to strike a vehicle that is traveling at about the same speed as yours (hitting a slow-moving or parked car will stop you, but the deceleration will be quick and extreme) and attempt to make impact squarely on the back of the vehicle.  Glancing blows will likely send both vehicles out of control. Be extremely careful not to hit to hard as your airbag may go off.

‘Look for a safe spot to pull over (or to crash)’.  Scan the road ahead for a safe area to pull over once you’re able to come to a stop.  If you’re not able to bring the vehicle to a complete stop, look for open spaces that you can coast across without hitting anything.

If the safest spot to “crash land” your vehicle requires you to jump a curb, extra caution must be taken. Even with power steering, the cars’ initial reaction will be to rip the steering wheel from your hands, bounce from the curb and back into traffic. It is imperative that you grip the steering wheel in a firm manner and angle your car deep enough into the curb so that it will go up and over, yet shallow enough so that you don’t turn the car completely and lose control in a spin.

‘Steer sharply from side-to-side’ Turning creates friction, which slows your car naturally. If you do not have brakes, try turning sharply from left to right over and over to slow your car down. Do not do this at high speeds. Turning at high speeds may flip your car and turning too sharply at any speed can spin your car around, so be careful.

‘Use the Aerodynamics against your car’ if you are on a highway and you lost braking power try to open the doors, the 2 front doors or the 2 doors at the back. If you are driving at high speed you will have to push much harder to resist the air flowing around. This is extremely helpful because opening the doors applies a lot of drag of about 80% to 90% of it, which is normally around 60% of the drag of a normal going car on the road.

All of these suggestions are what I learned from Popular Mechanics magazine and the CHP enforcement driving manuals and thankfully never had to use any of them.  My hope is that you too can be aware of what to do and not have to do and go out and enjoy the ride.

Monty Hight is a retired California Highway Patrol officer and Public Information Officer. He is the North State AVOID Campaign’s Public Information Officer. He lives in Redding. More information on AVOID can be found here.
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Monty Hight
Monty Hight is a retired California Highway Patrol officer and public information officer. He is the North State AVOID Campaign’s spokesman. He lives in Redding.
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1 Response

  1. Avatar gamerjohn says:

    Many years ago the brakes of my van went out while returning from getting a Christmas tree in the Santa Cruz mountains. One of the scariest driving experiences ever. It was a long downhill stretch and after down shifting I turned into an up hill road where we soon slowed and stopped. The brake fluid had boiled over from all the braking. We let it cool for an hour and returned home safely.