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Defensive Driving Traffic Safety Tips

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Mechanical Malfunctions

Breaking Down

Mechanical malfunctions are a fact of life for drivers today and for the foreseeable future. Not only are they a source of breakdowns and delay, but also pose a significant hazard to both yourself and everyone else on the road.


Suspension Failure


Sometimes a mechanical malfunction will give little or no warning. In this case a tanker-trailer was headed north on the inside lane of a four lane divided highway in an industrial part of town. Traveling in the opposite direction, a mid- sized car was headed toward the truck when, just before passing the truck, the car shook and swerved into the left front of the tanker trailer. After impact the truck veered to the right and turned over in an adjacent ditch.

After inspection of the car's suspension, it was determined that the ball joint retaining nut was missing and the lower ball joint had separated. The nut had apparently come loose after front end suspension work. Tire marks at the scene, revealed the ball joint separated prior to the collision. This caused the left front wheel to move uncontrollably. The car swerved left into the tanker-trailer. Regular vehicle maintenance and inspection can help prevent such an unexpected and severe collision. Neither driver was cited in this collision. The contributing factor listed on the police report was "Defective Steering Mechanism"

Suspension and drivetrain failures can usually be prevented by regular inspection and lubrication. Most suspension problems produce noise, so keep on top of those squeeks and rattles.




Wheel Separation

The next accident was caused by incorrectly torqued lug nuts. A car was headed south on an interstate soon after the left front wheel had been replaced at a shop. The car started to shake and then suddenly the left front wheel separated from the vehicle. The wheel traveled across the southbound lanes, over the dividing wall and into northbound traffic. The wheel impacted a vehicle and caused severe injuries to the driver.

Many people replace wheels and don't torque (tighten) them properly. This is very important with all wheels, but more so with alloy rims that are common on vehicles these days. Incorrectly torqued lug nuts can also warp brake disks, resulting in brake problems.

Generally there will be noise and vibration preceding a wheel separation, so if you hear unusual noises and/or vibrations, slow down, pull over to a safe area, and inspect your vehicle.


Disabled Vehicles

Disabled vehicles are a far too common occurrence on our increasingly busy highways and interstates. Just about everyone has run out of gas at some time; driving around on fumes is never a good idea. It increases your risk of running out of gas, but also increases your risk of being stranded in a dangerous situation. This has led to many motorists being killed or injured while trying to move a vehicle or walking along freeways to get fuel. If you are stranded at night the risks of being hit are much greater still. Pedestrians are regularly hit and killed everywhere there are roads.

If your vehicle becomes disabled, get out of the roadway as soon as safely possible. If you are about to run out of gas, get off the main lanes and away from high-speed traffic.


Disabled Vehicles

In this example a van ran out of gas while traveling on the inside lanes of a busy freeway at night. While moving a vehicle out of the roadway usually is a good idea, pushing it at night is not. Unfortunately oncoming traffic couldn't see the dim lights of the van and the right rear light was obstructed by the woman pushing the van.


Brake Failure

Be familiar with your brake system. Having your brakes fail while you are driving is a dangerous experience where quick thinking can cool reactions can potencially save lives.

At the first sign of brake trouble, try not to panic. Downshift to low gear. Sound your horn and flash your lights to warn other drivers. Work your vehicle into the right lane and then toward the shoulder. Be aware of other traffic around you and use your signals and mirrors for your maneuvers. Pump the brake pedal hard and fast in order to build up pressure. Most all vehicles have dual hydraulic brake systems that prevent both the front and rear brake systems from giving out at the same time. If after three or four hard pumps no braking is occurring, apply the parking brake. If the car starts to weave release it and reapply it and/or swerve into bushes or something soft. When you reach the right lane turn on your emergency hazard lights.

You should never drive a vehicle at any speed without brakes! Nothing more dangerous on the road than someone who can't stop.


Antilock Brakes

Some people aren't used to ABS systems (anti-lock braking systems) and may believe there is a problem with their brakes, especially on slippery roadways. That is, they feel a pulsing sensation when they brake hard. If you vehicle is equipped with ABS, the ABS logo will appear on your dashboard display whenever you start the car.

If you do have ABS, practice using them before you get into an emergency. Try suddenly appying your brakes in a safe place on wet and dry pavement.

Anti-lock brakes have benefits over regular brakes when it comes to vehicle control. They allow the driver to steer during hard braking. When regular brake lock up the driver looses the ability to steer and the vehicle may want to spinout of control if the rear brakes lock before the front, or if braking along a curved road. Since ABS allows the driver to steer, he or she can potencially avoid the collision. It is important not to steer too hard or you may loose control even with ABS.

When your car is equipped with ABS and you need to brake hard:

  • Apply steady, firm pressure to the brake pedal.
  • Steer around obstacles avoiding sudden sharp meneuvers.



When you Breakdown

Here are some safety guidelines in the advent of a mechanical failure.

In case of car trouble, pull as far off the road as possible. Warn approaching traffic by turning on hazard flashers and the dome light.  If you have cones or flares set them 300 feet behind your vehicle. 

Keep out of the roadway, and get passengers out of the area immediately.   Stand away from your vehilcle and wait for help to arrive. In order to alert police or tow trucks, raise your hood and tie something white to the antena. Look for any nearby "call-for-help" phones. All interstate highways and major roads are patrolled regularly, so be patient. Do not make repairs in the road.  Oncoming traffic could certainly kill or cause you serious injury.



Vehicle Fires

If you've spent much time in salvage yards you'll notice many burned vehicles. A burning car is a frightening situation and can lead to tradgedy.



If you notice smoke coming from under your hood or smell smoke:

  • Use your turn signal and move to the right lane.
  • Pull over, out of traffic, and investigate..
  • Shut off the engine and all electrical switches.
  • Get yourself and all other passengers out of the vehicle. Noxious fumes may fill the interior.
  • Keep onlookers away and warn other driver's to stay away.


Vehicle Fires (continued)

If the fire is small, you can use an extinguisher to put it out. Whatever you do, don't spray or pour water on a gasolene, oil or electrical fire. With a large fire , don't attempt to try to put out the fire yourself. The fire may spread to the gas tank and create a large fire ball. Keep far away and call for help.

Car fires are caused by:

  • Fuel Leaks
  • Electrical Shorts
  • Overheated Engines
  • Oil Leaks
  • Intentionally Set

In all vehicle fire situations, think and act quickly. Personal and public safety are the most important considerations. A vehicle can be replaced, but you or someone nearby cannot.


Carbon Monoxide

Exhaust systems give off a gaseous byproduct called carbon monoxide. If it leaks into your vehicle it it can be deadly. It can leak through poorly routed or leaky exhaust systems and into the interior by way of door jams, windows, vents etc. Running vehicles, generators or other combution engines in an enclesed space, such as a garage is extremely dangerous. When in traffic keep plenty of space between you and the car ahead of you, especially in slow traffic.

Carbon monoxide blocks your red blood cells from carrying oxygen. Carbon monoxide is difficult for a driver or passenger to detect since it doesn't have an odor.

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning are:

  • Dizziness
  • Sleepiness
  • Nausea

If you have any any of these symptoms, it could be carbon monoxide poisoning. If you are driving, pull over and get fresh air immediately. Listen for exhaust leaks and open windows near the exhaust pipe opening.


Headlight Failure

If you headlights go out, try the dimming switch and the headlight switch a few times.
If this doesn't work, turn on your hazards, parking or turn signals. Quicky and safely pull over leaving your hazard lights flashing.




Is that steam or smoke coming out from my hood? If it's white, it's steam from your radiator. If white steam is coming out your tailpipe, you probubly blew a head gasket. Either way your engine overheated and continuing to drive could seriously damage the engine. Naturally, it's best to keep an eye on your coolant and temperature gauge to prevent this.

If your car begins to overheat, turn your heater on to draw some of the heat out of the engine. Reduce the load on the engine by turning off the air conditioner and shifting into neutral at stops.

If the temperatire gauge shows the temperature is too high, pull to the side of the road. Shut it off and let it cool down. Once it is cool you can remove the rediator cap. Do not open the radiator cap when the engine is warm. The radiator is under high pressure and will spray scalding antifreeze on your face and hands if the cap is removed when hot.


Jump Starting

Jumping a vehicles battery is often the quickest way to get is going when a battery fails. While jump starting is common, it does have ricks and should be done properly to avoid burns or explosion. Watch the following video about how to safely jump start your vehicl.


Jump Starting - Motorcycles

Very old motorcycles and cars cannot be jumped safely by a modern car. Since the mid 1960s, vehicles have used a 12-volt system as opposed to the earlier 6-volt system. Motorcycles are typically equipped with a standard transmission. This means they can be push started fairly easily unless they are heavy for the rider to push and hold up. Since the engines and batteries of motorcycles are smaller than most other vehicles, They can be jump started without needing to run the boosting vehicles engine.

Alternatives to Typical Jump Starting

Cigarette lighter outlet
An alternative to jumper cables is a cable used to interconnect the 12 volt power outlets (cigarette lighter outlets) of two vehicles. While this eliminates concerns with incorrect connections and generation of arcs near battery terminals, the amount of current available through such a connection is small. This method works through very slowly charging the battery, not through providing the current needed for cranking. Engine cranking should not be attempted as the starter motor current will exceed the fuse rating in a cigarette lighter outlet. Many vehicles turn off the cigarette lighter outlets when the key is turned off,[9] making the technique unusable unless the ignition key is turned to the accessory position to connect the cigarette lighter outlet to the battery.

Battery booster and jump starter
A hand-portable battery, equipped with attached cables and charger, can be used similarly to another vehicle's battery. It can reach 1700 peak amps.

Portable boosters may automatically sense the battery's polarity prior to sending power to the vehicle, eliminating the damage that can result from reversing the connection.

Battery charger
Motorists and service garages often have portable battery chargers operated from AC power. Very small "trickle" chargers are intended only to maintain a charge on a parked or stored vehicle, but larger chargers can put enough charge into a battery to allow a start within a few minutes. Battery chargers may be strictly manual, or may include controls for time and charging voltage. Some chargers are equipped with "boost" settings that supply a large current to assist in cranking the engine. Battery chargers that apply high voltage (for example, more than 16 volts on a 12 volt nominal system) will result in high emission of hydrogen gas from the battery and may damage it. A battery may be recharged without removal from the vehicle, although in a typical roadside situation no convenient source of AC power may be nearby.

[edit] Push starting
Main article: Push start
A vehicle with a manual transmission may be push started. This requires caution while pushing the vehicle and may require the assistance of several persons. If the vehicle battery cannot provide power to the ignition system, push starting will be ineffective. Most vehicles with automatic transmissions cannot be started this way because the hydraulic torque converter in the transmission will not allow the engine to be driven by the wheels (some very old automatic transmissions, e.g., General Motors' two-speed Powerglide transmission, do leave a solid connection between the engine and wheels, and cars equipped with such transmissions can be push started).



Stuck Gas Pedal




A gas pedal can get stuck for a variaty of reasons. These include problems with linkage, cables or even floormats and flipflops.

If your gas pedal gets stuck while you're driving:

  • Shift into neutral
  • Don't turn the engine off while you are moving unless you no longer need to steer the vehicle.
  • Keep a look out for traffic and apply your brakes.
  • Look for a way to drive the car safely off the road.
  • Warn other drivers by flashing your emergency lights.

Sometimes it's possible to free the stuck pedal by tapping it or removing the obstruction. If you can get your foot under it, lift it up to free it.


Flat Tires and Blowouts

The main thing to remember when you have a blowout or a flat (to a lesser extent) is to remain calm and don't jerk the steering wheel in response to noise or one side of the car dropping down. Tests involving blowouts have shown, that in almost all instances is a driver simply drives straight ahead, he or she will maintain control and be able to avoid loosing control.




If one of your tires blowout or you think you have a flat:

  • Grip the steering wheel tightly with both hands and steer straight ahead.
  • Use emergency flashers and horn to warn other drivers.
  • Work your way to an exit or off the roadway to a safe location.
  • Slow down gradually. Lift your foot from the accelerator slowly but don't apply the brakes untill you are almost stopped.
  • Park the vehicle well off the pavement before stopping. You can drive on a flat as long as you take it easy. The tire is most certainly ruined, so don't worry about damaging it.
  • Avoid driving farther than just off the roadway, since the rim can be damaged by prolonged use without a tire.


Changing a Tire

If not done correctly, changing a tire can be very dangerous. The vehicle may fall due to it moving or an incorrectly placed jack. Be sure you have the correct equipment and look at the owners manual for instruction.Traffic whizzing by as you change a tire is a hazard you need to avoid, so pull as far away from traffic as you can and don't risk your life to make that appointment.

If you are unfamiliar with how to change a tire, have difficulty removing lug nuts (many times those are really stuck on there), or operating a jack (most jacks are stiff, slow and hard to reach when under the vehicle) you would probubly be much better off getting professional help, especially on multi-lane highways.


Just for Fun

How not to change a belt on a VW

(Don't try this or Serious Injury May Result!!)