Surviving Disaster at the Wheel
Surviving Disaster at the Wheel. Click image to enlarge

Article by Justin Pritchard

A vehicle is a machine – and like any other sort of machine, your car, truck, crossover or wagon is built from countless parts that can break, fail or malfunction. In the wrong situation, gas pedals can stick, wheels can fall off, and that frail glass windshield can be shattered faster than you can blink.

If something goes terribly wrong with your vehicle, it can leave you, the driver, facing a world of potentially fatal problems.

Of course, operating a motor vehicle is subject to the whims of Mother Nature, too. Your ride is probably designed to tackle some of the nastiest concoctions of cold, ice, rain and fog she’ll ever toss its way – but get Mother Nature on a bad day, and she can throw some life-threatening situations towards you and your ride, too.

Are you prepared if disaster strikes at the wheel? Here’s a look at how you might maximize your chances of survival in some worst-case scenarios.

Problem: Driving Blind

You’re travelling at speed down a major highway at speed, in the fast lane, with a few passengers on board. You hear a loud bang or snap, and realize you can’t see. Turns out, a piece of ice has just become dislodged from the roof of a transport truck passing you in the oncoming lane, and it’s struck your windshield at a combined speed beyond 200 km/h. Your windscreen shattered, sending glass dust and shards into your eyes. In mere milliseconds, your vehicle has been turned into a projectile without a pilot.

Surviving Disaster at the Wheel
Surviving Disaster at the Wheel. Click image to enlarge

Solution: Know Your Surroundings

Ian Law is racecar driver and the president and chief instructor of the ILR Car Control School ( He’s been teaching drivers of all ages advanced safe driving techniques for years – and he recommends a preemptive approach to successfully tackling a catastrophic non-visibility situation.

“This is one scenario where staying focused on your driving pays off in dividends. Any motorist who considers themselves a good driver will have been focused on their driving and the situation before the incident. This is called “situational awareness”, and it involves processing all driving information so that the driver knows at all times what is around them – and where. Pilots practice this when flying and it saves lives”.

Translation? Be aware of what’s around you at all times. If you are, you’ll have a better sense of whether you can get off of the road safely. Signal and move over to the shoulder as smoothly and as soon as you can before taking corrective action and calling for help. If you’re driving blind, ‘feel’ for the end of the pavement and keep going until you know you’re clear of the roadway, asking your passengers for help.

Want to see the aftermath of a windshield ice strike as experienced by your writer in a BMW X5 M a few winters back? Click this. I was travelling around 90 km/h at the time. Thankfully, the windshield held up and my eyes were fine after a little flushing with water to remove glass dust.

Problem: Stuck Throttle Pedal

A malfunction with your throttle keeps the pedal stuck to the floor after passing another vehicle. You start to panic, and your vehicle piles on speed dangerously.

Solution: Know your ride, use NEUTRAL now

Forget turning off the engine or braking. The first course of action here is to slip the vehicle into neutral. Doing so takes about half a second, and decouples the engine from the wheels. In neutral, your vehicle can’t accelerate – no matter how hard the throttle is pressed.

In this situation, the engine will continue to rev at maximum rpm, likely against its rev limiter, though the vehicle will slow. The sound of the engine revving at high speed may be intimidating, but it’s the least of your worries. Once in neutral, signal, brake and get off of the road immediately. Turn the engine off and assess the problem.

Practice putting your gear selector into neutral, so you’re ready if the need arises. Teach your kids, too. Note that if your car has a stick-shift, pressing and holding the clutch pedal has the same effect.

Some newer models with ‘shift by wire’ transmissions (many BMW models, some new Land Rovers, Toyota/Lexus hybrids, Chrysler, Lincoln and others), may have a different procedure for engaging neutral. See your owner’s manual for details.

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