I once changed a flat tire in the middle of the Interstate Bridge from Portland, Ore., to Vancouver, Wash., and my traveling companion was amazed I knew how to do it. Changing flats is (like handling a manual transmission and jump starting) a lost art in America. Given our growing ignorance about all things mechanical, here are some quick tips for surviving common car emergencies (in addition to these and these, of course):
1. Stuck in snow: If old man winter is coming down hard where you live, it might make sense to be prepared and travel with tire chains, a shovel and either a bag of sand or mats to increase traction. And think about investing in winter tires, because “all-weather” radials are a compromise at best. If you get mired in snow (or mud; the solution is basically the same), use the shovel to clear a path behind the drive wheels — it helps to know which ones have power. Put the sand in front of the driven tires so they have something to grip. Then, with a delicate foot on the throttle, try moving forward. Don’t spin the wheels because you’ll just get dug in deeper. If you’re still stuck, you’ll need to try rocking back and forth by shifting between reverse and drive — this worked for me last week.
2. Submerged car: The sequence from the University of Manitoba is, “Seatbelts, windows, children, out.” Try to get the power windows down before the electrical system shorts out, but if they won’t open break one with whatever’s handy. Many cars (VW Bugs were famous for this) will float, at least for a few minutes. If the car sinks, water pressure may make it hard to get out via the doors (at least until the interior is full of water, and then you don’t have much time). The kids should go out first. Luckily, no one was hurt when this guy drove his million-dollar Bugatti Veyron straight into a Texas bay — his insurance company came after him for doing it intentionally instead.
3. Brake failure: I once lost all braking going through a toll booth at 60 mph in a 1962 Chevy Bel Air. Back then, cars had single-circuit brakes that were susceptible to total loss, but newer split systems aren’t as dangerous. If you do lose your brakes, immediately apply the emergency brake (something I forgot to do), pump the pedal to try to build up pressure, downshift into low gear, and steer as soon as possible to the side of the road.
4. Car fire: There are more than 150,000 car fires every year in the U.S., which adds up to 17 an hour. Assuming the fire was under the hood (as it was in those high-profile Tesla conflagrations), pull over as soon as you can, shut the engine (or electric motor!) off, and get the hell out of the car as soon as you can. A fire extinguisher (you are carrying one, right?) or even dirt or a heavy blanket might put out the fire (even snow can work). But bevery careful when opening the hood. Wear gloves or wrap your hands in a rag when releasing the latch. You’re feeding the flames with oxygen, so the fire could flare up. If the whole car is burning, or just the rear end, stay well away because the gas tank could ignite. (You’ve seen that in movies, haven’t you?)
5. Tire blowout: These are scary because they happen very suddenly. Depending on which wheel is involved, the car will likely become hard to steer, so you need to get over to the shoulder of the road as soon as possible. Don’t hit the brakes, which could cause the car to spin — back off the accelerator to slow down. Consumer Reports says, “Drive on the bare rim of the wheel to get to a safe place if you must.” Put on the emergency flashers. And, of course, once you’re safe, change the tire — if you can. Many new cars are saving weight and replacing spares with tire inflation kits (a small air compressor and a can of stop-leak gunk), but I’ve found them ineffective in two recent strandings. If you have AAA or one of the alternative services, now may be the time to use it.