No driver wants to be in a crash, of course.
Okay, maybe demolition derby guys, but that’s more controlled and less dangerous than you might think. Certainly less dangerous than the surprise crashes that occur on the road every day.
When you’re faced with a collision on the road, get out of it if you can. And if you can’t, find a way to minimize the damage.
Always have an “Out”
The most basic concept of defensive driving is to think about your driving as you drive: pay attention to what’s going on; keep a relatively clear space around your car, and be as prepared for surprises as you can be. And an important part of that is to plan an “out” or escape route in case of trouble ahead.
For example, if the car right in front of you were to rear-end the car ahead of it, what would you do to avoid becoming part of a multi-car collision. Could you stop in time, or would you veer to the right or the left? What’s your out?
Driving around a collision is certainly better than driving into it.
But this won’t be possible – especially in heavy traffic – unless you make it possible. As you drive, be aware of traffic and road conditions around you and keep adjusting your place in traffic to keep at least one “out” open to you if you can.
If a Crash is Unavoidable
If you don’t have a way to drive around the obstacles ahead of you. Maybe you do have to hit that other car. Or maybe you can steer around the car, but that just means that you’ll have to hit something else.
A safer driver can make both of these situations work to their advantage to minimize the damage to themselves, their car, and everyone else involved.
Slow Your Car Down
Get off of the gas and hit the brakes. Even if you won’t be able to stop completely, any reduction in speed is good for you.
The physics of a collision comes down to force of impact, which is basically a multiplication problem: speed times weight equals damage. If you have half a second before you hit that car, any reduction in speed can mean a big reduction in damage.
If you can’t escape hitting another car, do what you can to control where and how you hit it. Modern cars aren’t the heavy metal boxes that our grandparents drove around in. Construction-wise, they’re basically upholstered seats inside a concealed steel safety cage which is surrounded by “crumple zones.” These are front and back ends of cars that are designed to fold up accordian-style if they’re hit hard enough.
And it’s better to clip another car than hit it head on. If you’re forced into a situation where you have to rear-end someone, point your hood ornament at one of their tail lights instead of their license plate. Let the corner of their car absorb your force of impact: it will be a lot less damaging than throwing it at a stronger part of the car.
If you’re looking at a T-bone collision, where you’re headed straight into their car doors, steer a bit to the side and try to hit them in the trunk or engine compartment. You’ll both get less damage that way because the crumple zones will absorb so much of the impact force.
The deadliest kind of crash involving two cars is the head-on collision. If you’re forced into crashing into someone head on, your best option is to veer to the right – basically to aim your driver’s side headlight at their driver’s side headlight. This means that only some of your force-of-impact will collide with some of theirs, minimizing as much of the damage as possible. And by veering to the right instead of the left, you should be aiming yourself toward your side of the road, putting you at less risk from oncoming traffic.
Path of Least Resistance
If you can steer around the car but only by hitting something else, do it but make smart decisions about what to hit.
In our defensive driving classes, we call this “the path of least resistance.” The basic idea is simple: if you must hit something, pick the thing that will do the least damageTrash cans, mail boxes, and shrubs are all less of a danger to your car than another car would be, so aim at them if you can. If your only alternatives are brick walls or trees, you might be better off hitting the other car after all. Trees don’t come with crumple zones.
Giving Yourself More Time
Of course, all of this decision making has to be done in fractions of a second. But you even have some control over that aspect of driving.
By paying attention to your driving instead of your cell phone, you’ll see the danger earlier and have more time to react. In good driving conditions, a good driver will usually spot a need to stop in about three-quarters of a second. That’s not much time to react, of course, but it’s much more time than you’ll have if you’re looking at a text message or picking a radio station when the critical moment comes. If you’re not paying attention, you could actually kill someone before you even lay eyes on them.
By driving a bit more slowly and following at a safe distance, you will have more time to decide what to do and get it done before that nasty crashing sound takes your options away. The two-second-or-more rule is designed not so much to give you time to stop before a crash, but to give you time to steer around a crash.