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How to deal with on-the-road emergencies

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There are plenty of ingredients for a bad summer road trip in addition to rain and cranky kids. You could be driving along when the engine stalls (the reason for GM’s recent recall of 1.6 million cars) or the car accelerates suddenly and unintentionally (the reason for Toyota’s recalls in 2009 and 2010) or a tire blows out. Here’s what to do in those situations:

Stalled engine. A car can lose power for many reasons, from running out of gas to having a faulty fuel pump or alternator. (In the recalled GM cars, the problem was an ignition switch that was flimsily made and easy to switch off inadvertently.) If you’re driving and the ignition key moves to the accessory position accidentally, try shifting into neutral and restarting the engine. Then shift back into drive and you’re good to go. If the engine won’t restart or has stalled for another reason, apply the brakes and steer gradually to the side of the road. You’ll lose power steering, so steering will feel heavier, but it will still be possible. Expect the power boost for brakes to disappear after one or two applications, so try to stop as soon as you can, using the emergency brake if necessary.

Sudden acceleration. Our tests have shown that brakes may not be enough to stop a car with a stuck throttle while traveling at highway speeds. Brake firmly, but don’t pump the brakes. And don’t turn off the engine, because doing so disables the power assist for your steering and brakes. Shift into neutral. Some modern gear selectors are unconventional enough to cause confusion about where neutral is; if yours is one of them, you can practice sliding your gear lever into neutral while driving in an empty parking lot at low speed. Don’t worry if the engine revs up alarmingly—most modern cars have rev-limiters, and that will keep the engine under control. Steer to a safe location and come to a full stop. Shut off the engine with the transmission still in neutral. Lastly, shift the transmission into park or, with a manual transmission, set the emergency brake.

Blown tire. Don’t stop in the travel lane; take a firm grip on the wheel and limp the car to a safe location. A new wheel is less important than your safety. Do what you can to prevent flats from happening in the first place by keeping all tires, even the spare, properly inflated to the automaker’s recommended pressure. Check air pressure at least monthly—many tire problems result from underinflated tires that overheat—and inspect the sidewalls for bulges or cracks.

For any of those emergencies, once you’re safe take a deep breath, then turn on the hazard flashers and summon help.

Visit our guides to summer road trips and car maintenance for more information.

Keep these in the car

In addition to a basic first-aid kit, have the items below on hand. If applicable, check them periodically to ensure that they’re in working order—and be familiar with how each works before you need to use it in an emergency.

• Cell phone and car charger

• Fire extinguisher (multipurpose, dry-chemical compact unit labeled 1A:10B:C or 2A:10B:C)

• Warning light, hazard triangles, or flares

• Jack and lug wrench (if your car lacks run-flat tires)

• Nonflammable foam tire sealant (for minor punctures; not a permanent fix)

• Spare fuses (check owner’s manual for correct type and replacement instructions)

• Bright, weatherproof flashlight

• Gloves, hand cleaner, clean rags

• Auto-club card or roadside-assistance number

• Jumper cables or a portable battery booster (eliminates the need for a second vehicle)

• Pen and paper (to leave a note on a windshield or jot down accident info)

• Escape device (for example, Resqme, a key chain with a blade to slice seatbelts and a spike to shatter windows)


Copyright © 2005-2014 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission. Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this site.