7 Common Road Hazards (And How to Avoid Them)

Don't run into trouble on the road. Here are smart strategies every driver should know to keep her family safe.

Introduction

Brina Tignor and her 3-year-old daughter, Miranda, were driving on an Oklahoma highway one afternoon last September when they suddenly came upon a stretch of road that had just been hit by a severe storm. The rain had stopped and the sun was shining, but the pavement was still covered with puddles.

Realizing the potential danger, Tignor slowed down, but it was too late. Her Toyota SUV skidded across the road, and when she tried to steer straight, it skidded again. Her mind raced: What did they teach us about skidding in driver's ed?

In a panic, Tignor swerved to the left and then the right, which sent her spinning into oncoming traffic, where she collided with another car. Fortunately, no one in either vehicle was seriously hurt. But the accident made Tignor realize that her driving skills weren't sufficient to protect her family.

"Most drivers don't know what to do when they encounter trouble on the road," says Mike Donohoe, coordinator of traffic safety and driver education for the American Automobile Association (AAA) of Northern New England.Here, seven scary situations and what to do if they happen to you.

Skidding Out of Control

You're headed to Gymboree to spend a rainy afternoon indoors. As you try to negotiate a curve in the road, your car skids on the wet surface and starts to spin out of control.

What to Do:

Most experts have abandoned the "turn into the skid" suggestion. Though the strategy is effective, the rule seemed to confuse people more than help them. Instead, when you go into a skid, you should quickly take your foot off the gas. "Next, pick a focal point down the road," says Bobby Ore, who runs a driving school for law-enforcement officers and stunt drivers in Camarillo, California. "Gently steer the car toward that point. The most important thing is to not oversteer or throw the wheel to the left and right." Oversteering can cause a rollover, especially in top-heavy sport-utility vehicles. And whatever you do, don't slam on your brakes, which will cause the car to skid more. If you keep your eye on where you want to go and continue to steer slowly in that direction, you should be fine. Once you've regained control, brake if necessary.

Preventive Measures:

Always adjust your driving in adverse conditions, says Don Vinson, of All Star Driving School, in Dallas, Texas. "If the road conditions are anything less than ideal, slow down," he says. "Most people fail to understand that speed limits are for favorable driving conditions. They don't apply if it's raining or snowing."

Blowout on the Highway

While traveling to an away soccer game, you suddenly hear a loud boom, then a thump, thump, thump. It feels like you've hit a speed bump, but you soon realize that your tire has blown out.

What to Do:

Focus on remaining in control of your car, not on figuring out what happened. "Drivers typically crane their head out the window, thinking they've been hit, and end up in- advertently turning the wheel in the process," Ore says. Another common mistake is slamming on the brakes, which can cause you to lose control of the vehicle.

"Instead, holding your steering wheel firmly in both hands, take your foot off the gas and let the car slow down naturally," Ore says. Switch on your hazard lights, check the traffic, and gently steer your car to a safe area as far off the road as possible, braking gently when you're ready to stop. Once you're out of harm's way, get out of the car, survey the situation, and phone for help. It's dangerous to change your own tire near a busy highway, particularly if you have children in the car.

Preventive Measures:

Be on the lookout for debris that may have fallen off a truck or car -- a common cause of blowouts. "You should always be scanning the road far ahead of you," Ore says. "That way, if you see something coming up, you'll have plenty of time to stop or switch lanes to avoid hitting something that could wreck your tire."

Good, well-maintained tires can also help you avoid blowouts, so keep an eye on their treads and pressure. Under- or overinflated tires can trigger a leak or blowout; store a gauge in your glove compartment, and check your tires once a month. "Check treads by taking a penny and inserting the top of Lincoln's head into the tread," Donohoe says. "If the tread covers any of Lincoln's hair, the tire is okay." Or better yet, buy a tread-wear gauge, available at any auto-supply store.

Car Lands in Lake

On a family vacation, you're driving at dusk along a narrow lakeshore road. In an effort to avoid a head-on collision, you desperately steer toward the shoulder, but your car flies into a deep part of the water.

What to Do:

First of all, remain calm. As soon as the car is steady, unbuckle your seat belt, climb into the back, and unbuckle your children. "You need to wait until enough water has seeped into the car to equalize the pressure between the inside and outside," Ore explains. "If you try to get out before then, the force of the water rushing into the car will slam into you and prevent you from escaping." Once water has stopped entering your car (which signals that the pressure inside and outside have equalized), you can begin your escape. If you have manual windows, roll one down. If they are electric, break the glass. "Don't try to bust the front windshield," Ore says. "It's probably shatterproof." Instead, break open a side window with a hard object, exit the car, and swim to the surface. Ideally, you should use a 5-inch spring-loaded punch, a tool used by carpenters and machinists. Buy one at a hardware store, and keep it in your glove compartment.

Preventive Measures:

Drive defensively and at a safe speed whenever you're near water. Have a game plan for what you would do if you were suddenly forced off the road. Also, be careful when driving in flood conditions. "People often underestimate the depth of water or the seriousness of the flood," Donohoe says. Avoid flood-prone roads in heavy rains, and if you find yourself in rising water, get your family out of the car and move to higher ground.

Toddler Climbs Out of Carseat

You're in the midst of a long, boring drive down the Interstate and you notice that your 3-year-old has unbuckled his carseat and is standing up in the back of the car.

What to Do:

"Don't overreact," says Stephanie Tombrello, the executive director of SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A., a child-passenger-safety organization in Torrance, California. "If you start screaming, you'll lose your focus on the road, and if you brake suddenly, your child will go flying." Instead, drive as far off the roadway as possible, stop the car, and calmly put your child back in his seat. Firmly explain that this behavior is unacceptable and that the car will not move until everyone is buckled in. An added note: When putting your child into the car, always do so from the curb. Standing in the road to buckle your child in puts you at great risk of being hit.

Preventive Measures:

Never engage in discussions with your child about why he can't get out of his carseat. Tell him it's not allowed, and that's that. Always make sure the harness is snug enough (if you can't pinch any harness fabric between your fingers, it's good). Otherwise, kids can slip out.

Baby Starts Wailing

During an hour-long drive to visit a friend, your 6-month-old begins screaming her head off. You try to console her, but nothing works.

What to Do:

Whatever you do, don't ever reach into the backseat to console her; you need to stay fully focused on the road. Instead, pull into a parking lot or another safe place. Check to see if she needs a diaper change or wants to be fed. Never bring a baby into the front seat -- even in a parked vehicle -- because if the car were struck and the air bags deployed, your baby could be injured or killed.

Preventive Measures:

Keep in mind that a safety seat is not a natural place for an infant to spend time. If you're with a spouse, take turns riding in the back alongside the baby. While you're there, play with her and keep her engaged with soft toys, rattles, and books. On long trips, take frequent breaks to ac-commodate her needs -- as well as to keep you from feeling frazzled.

Car Slams Into You

After picking your child up from a playdate, you take a left turn at the green-arrow signal. A driver coming from the opposite direction runs a red light and fails to see you. His car hits your front fender, sending plastic, metal, and glass into the air.

What to Do:

If you're in a busy intersection or on a freeway and your car is drivable, carefully steer it to a safe spot. You should only leave the vehicle if it will not hinder traffic or endanger anyone. "People still believe that moving a vehicle hampers an investigation by police, but that's not true," says Juan Andrade, general manager, Southeast U.S., for Progressive Insurance, in Tampa. Never leave the scene of an accident if someone has been hurt.

If you're okay, check on the other passengers and try to calm the children down. If you have a cell phone, dial 911; if not, ask a passerby to make the call for you. Never try to move someone who is hurt; doing so could worsen his injuries.

Next, use whatever tools you have to protect the vehicle and the passengers: Set up flares, safety triangles, and safety signs, all of which you should keep in your trunk. Call your insurance company from the accident scene, if possible, and trade contact and insurance information with the driver of the other car. If there were any witnesses, get their contact information. And if the police won't come to the scene (in some major cities, they come only if someone is injured), phone them when you get home and file an accident report.

Preventive Measures:

Drive defensively by staying fully alert on the road: Never eat, apply makeup, or use a cell phone while driving, and don't get behind the wheel if you are sleep-deprived or have been drinking. Avoid tailgating, using the three-second rule: When the car in front of you passes a fixed object, such as a light post, it should take three seconds before you pass the same object.

In the case of an unavoidable crash, brake firmly before you collide. Even if you can't avoid hitting the other car, any decrease inpeed will lessen the severity of the crash.

Fog Clouds Your View

You encounter a thick fog while driving the kids home from day care. You can't even see the traffic light until you're practically underneath it.

What to Do:

Rule No. 1: Drive slowly. Fog not only affects visibility but leaves the road wet and slick. If you drive at a low speed, you'll be able to stop the car quickly if you encounter something (a fallen branch, a disabled car) that the fog has obscured. Use fog lights if you have them, or low beams; never use brights -- the light will be reflected back at you. Roll down your window and turn off the radio so you can hear what's happening on the road.

Preventive Measures:

Don't drive in foggy conditions unless you absolutely must. If you encounter unexpected fog, remember to reduce your speed; your car will need three times as much distance as usual to stop on slick roads. Open your windows to listen for traffic you cannot see. Be patient: Don't switch lanes if you don't have to. And unless absolutely necessary, never stop on a busy road in a dense fog, which puts you at risk of being hit.

Copyright Hal Karp©2002. Reprinted with permission from the July 2002 issue of Parents Magazine.

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