Stop the car now: Emergency preparedness for serious car trouble

Imagine you're driving on the Atlanta interstate and something goes wrong with your car. Perhaps a warning...

Imagine you're driving on the Atlanta interstate and something goes wrong with your car. Perhaps a warning light comes on or there is a sudden vibration. Maybe you blow out a tire or your engine starts smoking. Should you pull over right then or try to find a safe place to exit? Since stopping on the shoulder is dangerous and stopping against the center wall is even more so, understanding when you can afford to drive a bit further for a safe place to exit is vital.

Prevention is the best plan

Vehicular emergency preparedness means prevention. Regular car maintenance can help you prevent many disasters. So make sure to keep your car in good condition. Check your car's oil and coolant every time you stop for fuel. Also make sure to check your car's tire pressure every month.

Is the "check engine" light on?

Cars built after 1996 have a "check engine" light that will turn on if any of dozens of sensors tell the computer that something is not right. When the check engine light comes on, you do not have to pull over immediately. First, look at the coolant temperature gauge and the oil pressure gauge. If both of these appear normal, take your car to your local mechanic or to an auto parts store within the next day or so. Don't drive around with a check engine light on for days and weeks.

What if one of the gauges is showing a problem?

If you see the coolant temperature gauge is rising or is off the top of the gauge, your car is overheating. You should slow down and get off at the next exit. If you see steam from the hood, you should pull over to the shoulder as soon as possible. Since the engine may be seizing, put the car in neutral so that you can coast as far as possible and not come to a screeching halt in the middle of the road. Do not turn off the engine while trying to pull over since you need the power steering and power brakes to get off the road safely. As soon as you stop, turn off the engine.

Overheating and seizing can also be caused by low oil levels or a complete loss of oil. If you have a catastrophic oil leak or sudden loss of engine oil, the oil pressure gauge will drop. You may see a large plume of white smoke billowing out behind your car. This is another situation where you need to get off the road quickly but safely.

Additionally, a tire blowout may also require you to get off the road. Slow down gradually and move over to the shoulder safely. If you are close to an exit, you can even drive slowly along the shoulder to the exit where it is safer to stop. Remember that emergency preparedness means having a good spare tire on board and knowing how to change it.

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