Top 10 Road Emergencies and How to Handle Them

by FleetCardsUSA

August 14, 2020

You’ve kept your delivery truck or rig in tip-top condition. You check the weather before a road trip to minimize the chance of surprises. You make it a practice to stay alert and avoid distracted driving. But sooner or later, you’re likely to find yourself in the midst of an unexpected on-the-road emergency, often with little time to think before you respond.

It’s never a bad idea to review safety tips and visualize yourself responding accordingly for those times when it might save your or someone else’s life.

Tire Blowout

With today’s tires, it rarely happens. But if a tire suddenly goes flat: 

1-Tightly hold the steering wheel and keep the vehicle going straight. No matter your speed, the vehicle will be hard to control, so your number one priority is to stay in your lane going straight ahead until it’s safe to go to the next step.

2-Gradually slow down. Take your foot off the gas pedal, but don't apply the brakes until the vehicle has almost stopped. It’s instinctual to brake, but doing so too soon can cause a spinout or a crash.

3-Do not stop on the road if at all possible. Once you have slowed and can maintain control, pull off the road in a safe place.

Headlight Malfunction

When it comes to dangerous scenarios on the road, we often don’t think about some of the more unusual situations. It’s the stuff nightmares are made of, and is incredibly dangerous: a sudden failure of the vehicle’s headlights.

If your headlights do suddenly go out, try your vehicle's four-way flashers, parking lights, and directional signals. These may still work and should give you enough light to get safely off the road and hopefully alert other drivers to the problem. If your headlights begin to dim, take the hint and drive to a nearby service station, or pull off the road and call for help.

Stuck Throttle/Accelerator

As in other emergency situations, remember that job one is to control the vehicle.

1-    Keep your eyes on the road. If the problem is a stuck throttle, you may be able to lift the accelerator with your toe. But DO NOT take you eyes off the road or reach down with your hand as long as the vehicle is moving.

2-    Turn on your emergency flashers to alert other drivers.

3-    If you cannot lift the accelerator pedal, try tapping it once or twice. This may cause it to pop back into position.

4-    Apply the brakes and shift into neutral. The engine will race, but the brakes will slow the vehicle down. Do not pump the brakes but hold them down firmly, using both feet if necessary.

5-    Shift to neutral. Keep braking firmly and steadily until you slow enough to get off the road.

6-    Try to avoid turning the engine off to get the vehicle to stop unless absolutely necessary (for example, you are not strong enough to keep the brake fully depressed), because this action will typically compromise the steering and power-assist brake function, making it even harder to maneuver your vehicle.

7-    When you have come to a stop, turn off the ignition:

        > If you have a start on/off button rather a key, hold the button down until the vehicle is off.

        > If you have a key, keep it in the ignition to keep the steering wheel from locking.1

No Brakes

If there’s any good news in this situation, it’s that your problem won’t be steering the vehicle as in the tire blowout example. But it’s hard not to panic when you realize your brakes aren’t working. If you find yourself in this white-knuckle situation, stay as calm as possible and follow these steps:

1-    Reduce speed immediately. With an automatic transmission, try the brakes again, pumping them if necessary. Most newer vehicles have dual brake systems, so that the backup takes over in an emergency like this, giving you partial braking power. In you’re driving a manual transmission, carefully shift to a lower gear. You can also do this on some newer automatic cars and light trucks using manual mode or paddle shifters.

2-    Turn on your emergency flashers to alert other drivers.

3-    Carefully apply the emergency brake. Do this by holding the button while gradually pulling the emergency brake. This won’t stop the car suddenly; however, you need to be aware that doing so can cause the back wheels to lock, putting the vehicle into a skid.

4-    Look for an uphill slope. Major highways in hilly country often have “runaway truck ramps” on shoulders. If you’ve slowed down enough and can turn safely onto an uphill road, this move will help you decelerate further as it gets you off a busy road.

5-    If you must hit something, choose the softest spot in sight. As you maneuver off the road, look for shrubs rather than trees; a chain link fence instead of a brick wall.

6-    Do not turn off the ignition while driving. As we’ve said before, doing this will take away the power steering, and effective steering in this situation could be a matter of life and death.

Engine Stall/Failure

There are a number of things that can cause your vehicle’s engine to stall or quit while on the road. Fortunately, things like overheating, running out of gas, and lack of oil are easily preventable through regular routine maintenance.

There are other issues like transmission failure, electrical problems, a faulty fuel pump, or issues with the catalytic converter or ignition system that can take the driver by surprise and call for a quick response.

If possible, turn on your emergency flashers.

Getting the vehicle safely off the road is usually the prime concern here. If your vehicle totally shuts down, steering and braking become the major concerns due to loss of power to those systems. Follow the recommendations in the scenarios above. You should be able to get off the road, but keep in mind it will take longer than usual.

Once you are safely off the road, put the vehicle into neutral gear and attempt to re-start. If you can get the vehicle started, carefully return to the road and exit as soon as possible if on a limited-access highway. If you are on an in-town route, head to the nearest repair shop for help.

Collision Imminent

Now let’s turn the tables. You come over a hill or around a curve and see that someone else has stalled out, there’s a major accident ahead, or a big rig has jackknifed or spilled a load. The new assisted-braking systems are great for avoiding fender benders, but how do you stop on a dime or quickly and safely steer around a major incident on the highway?

Automotive Fleet offers the following suggestions, taken from the Wisconsin Motorists’ Handbook2:

“In most cases, a driver can turn the vehicle quicker than he or she can stop it. Consider whether turning will help avoid the collision. Make sure you have a good grip with both hands on the steering wheel. Once you have turned away or changed lanes, you must be ready to keep the vehicle under control. Some drivers steer away from one collision only to end up in another. Always steer in the direction you want the vehicle to go.

“With ABS: A valuable feature of ABS is that you can turn your vehicle while braking with less or no skidding. But do not ‘jerk’ the steering wheel (steer violently) while braking if you have ABS. Doing so may send you farther to the side than intended, because the vehicle will continue to respond to steering input while ABS is working. Practice using ABS in an empty parking lot so you know how the vehicle will respond. 

“Without ABS: If you do not have ABS, you must use a different procedure to turn quickly. You should step on the brake pedal, then let up and turn the steering wheel. Braking will slow the vehicle, put more weight on the front tires, and allow for a quicker turn. Do not lock up the front wheels while braking or turn so sharply that the vehicle can only plow ahead.” 

It’s almost always better to run off the road than to crash head-on into a moving object, especially another vehicle. Just try to keep the vehicle as straight as possible and keep the turn under control so you don’t over-correct and veer into traffic.

Wildlife in the Road

Fleet drivers who frequently travel through wooded rural areas are used to practicing heightened awareness when traveling at dawn or dusk. But it’s not unusual to spot a bear, a moose, or a family of deer crossing the road in front of you at any time of day in some areas. Collisions with large wildlife are especially dangerous, Accidents involving deer alone are responsible for about 200 deaths and over a billion dollars in property (vehicle) damage per year.3

To avoid becoming a statistic, pay close attention. Scan the road continually, especially in remote areas, and use your high headlight beams as much as possible. Reduce your speed so that you’ll have more time to react if you do see an animal.

Don’t assume that, if you’ve dodged one animal, you’re done. Deer in particular tend to travel in families, and then there’s the proverbial pack of wolves or coyotes. If you see one, there are likely more nearby. Apply the brakes as you would in other “imminent collision” circumstances and try to stay in your lane.

Driving Off the Road

Bad weather, poor visibility, distracted or drowsy driving, and overcorrecting/oversteering are just a few of the reasons a driver might find the vehicle’s wheels veering off the road onto the shoulder or roadside. The key in this situation is to avoid a knee-jerk reaction in which the driver overcorrects and crosses the center line in the other direction, often causing a jackknife or other serious accident.

To avoid this, take your foot off the accelerator and gently ease the wheels back onto the road before lightly and gently applying the brakes as needed.

If driver fatigue was the issue, be sure to pull off as soon as possible and take a break.

Severe Weather and Hydroplaning

We all know the importance of checking the weather forecast and monitoring conditions when we’re on the road, especially at times and in areas prone to storms. But it never hurts to review the definitions and guidelines so you’ll be prepared:

> A significant weather advisory means that heavy rain, excessive lightning, hail smaller than 1” in diameter, and winds up to 58 mph are possible. This Advisory is issued to keep the public aware of conditions considered dangerous but not life-threatening.

> A severe thunderstorm warning is radar-indicated, and means that the following are possible or have been noted in or near the warned area: hail of 1” or larger, surface wind speeds of 58 miles per hour or greater, and frequent cloud-to-ground lightning. A severe thunderstorm warning is a “danger” alert, since it carries a risk of developing or embedded tornadoes.

> A tornado watch means that conditions are favorable for tornadoes to develop, and the public should monitor conditions and be ready to take action if a warning is issued.

>  A tornado warning means a twister is developing on radar or has actually been sighted on the ground. If you are in the warned area, you should abandon your vehicle immediately and take shelter in a sturdy structure or in a ditch.

Tornadoes can toss cars and large trucks around like toys. Never try to outrun a tornado.

Heavy rain and storms always carry with them the risk of hydroplaning if you’re operating a motor vehicle. It occurs when you are driving 35 mph or more and the rain is heavy enough that your vehicle is actually riding on water. The faster you drive, the harder it is for the tires to push the water aside; consequently, the more the water builds up, and and the harder it is to control the vehicle.

Hydroplaning is a major cause of accidents in bad weather. To avoid it, monitor your tire tread and maintain proper inflation, slow down when it’s raining, and avoid driving through standing water. If you feel your vehicle hydroplaning, take your foot off the accelerator and let the vehicle slow down gradually, then apply non-ABS brakes carefully, using a gentle pumping action. For ABS brakes, just brake slowly and with a light touch.

Icy Roads

Many winter driving accidents can be completely avoided if the driver maintains an air of calm, cool, and collected thinking. While it is terrifying to realize that you are losing control of your vehicle, it’s likely that you have more control available than you think. Panicking when behind the wheel in icy conditions is the root cause of many accidents.

In questionable driving conditions, asking your vehicle's tires perform more than one duty can spell disaster. Most spinouts and uncontrolled slides occur when a driver attempts to do two actions at once – steer while braking, or turn while accelerating.  This is demanding too much of the already limited traction that the tires are given in wintry road conditions; even if they are high-traction winter tires. To overcome this risk, come to a complete stop before turning the wheel around a corner, and apply light, consistent pressure to the throttle when making a turn from a complete stop.

The best solution when first feeling a slide – no matter if there is a car in front of you or if you are in the midst of a turn – is to take your foot of the accelerator and lightly turn into the slide. Turning against the slide will cause a more aggressive slide in the opposite direction, and slamming on the brakes will cause your tail end to slip out even further.

Watch out for other more aggressive and/or less experienced drivers around you, but don’t let yourself be intimidated into hurrying. Just keep calm and carry on!

Need a fleet card that includes roadside service? Check out the Compare Cards page on FleetCardsUSA.


1”8 quick steps to take if your gas pedal sticks,” Accessed June 30, 2020.

2”Fleet Safety Tip of the Week,” Automotive Fleet, 26 January 2011. Accessed May 18, 2020.

3”Deer-vehicle collisions,” Wikipedia, 9 February 2020. Accessed July 1, 2020.



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