Come Back Alive: Driving

An excerpt from Robert Young Pelton’s book Come Back Alive

When just under half of all accidental deaths in this country are caused by motor vehicle accidents, it pays to learn how to shave the odds. Frighteningly, 80 percent of the deaths of Americans between sixteen and eighteen years old are caused by automobile accidents.

There’s about a 33 percent chance you’ll one day be involved in a car accident. If auto accidents were a lottery, a good chunk of us would be rich. Though a lot is made in the press about the 40,000-plus people killed on U.S. highways each year, you don’t hear much about the more than 3 mil- lion people who are injured in these accidents. That’s a much scarier statistic.

According to the cops, car accidents are caused by alcohol, speeding, running red lights, not concentrating, aggressive driving, and tailgating. They forget to mention that people making mistakes hit people who aren’t. Because you’re not at fault doesn’t mean you’ll walk away. Excellent drivers get clobbered all the time. It can take one peabrain little navigational error to ruin a lot of folks’ day. Perhaps the worst road accident in history occurred in Afghanistan in 1982. A Russian fuel tanker was rear-ended in a 1.7-mile-long tunnel. Some five thousand people were incinerated in the resulting blast. Only one guy made a mistake.

Realistically, most accidents are fender-benders at intersections or rear-enders. They can ruin your day, but not your life.


There is a rule of three when it comes to car collisions. When there is a collision, there are three crashes. First the car hits the object, then the person hits something inside the car, and then the organs in the body hit the inside of the body cavity. All three impacts smash and damage and can result in a medical emergency or death to the driver. You can eliminate one of these traumatic impacts by utilizing the primary survival tool: the seat belt.

Seat belts were invented during World War II for American pilots and have become the single most important safety device in a vehicle. A lot of people object to them, bleating that they will be trapped in the car if there’s an accident, but the fact remains that if you are thrown out of your vehicle in an accident, you are three times more likely to be killed, and your seat belt will keep you from colliding with your dashboard and windshield.


There is one other thing that can save your life: the size, height, and weight of your vehicle. If you take a bowling ball and run it into a Ping-Pong ball, the physics of mass, inertia, and impact becomes apparent. Survival in a vehicle can be determined by its height, since higher vehicles will slide up and over smaller vehicles, using the other vehicle’s roof, hood, or trunk to absorb the impact. More than half of all traffic fatalities involve vehicles of dramatically different mass, and 80 percent of these fatalities occur in the smaller vehicle. So the first step to automobile survival is to drive a truck.


Go ahead and run as fast as you can into a wall. Doesn’t feel so good, does it? Now walk slowly and do the same thing. Not so bad, right? Onlookers may make a wide tack of you on the way to a phone to call 911, but you will have discovered the basic principle of death vs. serious injury and serious in- jury vs. minor injury. The chance of death or serious injury doubles each 10 mph you travel over 50. In any moving vehicle higher speeds tie in directly to reduced reaction time, loss of control, and collision. So your second les- son is to slow down.


Driving is generally not a dangerous activity. If you are a middle-aged urban professional with a late-model, full-sized vehicle equipped with air bags, and you’re wearing your seat belt, keeping the necessary escape routes open, and checking your mirrors and blind spots occasionally, you’re probably spend- ing more time bitching about your insurance premiums than getting serviced at the body shop.

On the other hand, if you are an eighteen-year-old heading back from the Dew Drop Inn in a jacked-up ’65 Mustang with the carcass of a Bud Light twelve-pack in the passenger seat on Saturday night, things are a little different. In some areas, up to three of every five drivers on rural roads after midnight in the United States can be drunk.

Survival on the road starts with the right vehicle, the right attitude, and the right driving style. Drive for space, not for speed. Keep a buffer around you and keep your escape routes (in the front and to the sides) open.

Make use of the safety equipment provided. Seat belts worn, children in the back, ABS active and brakes checked, tires with the proper amount of tread, air bags activated, and no heavy or sharp projectiles in the car.

Know your car. Most people haven’t a clue what their vehicle will do in a skid or an emergency situation. Most people don’t even know how quickly their car will stop, and few understand threshold braking or realize that their vehicle will stop sooner by not locking the brakes. (Threshold braking is applying just enough pressure to the pedal just short of a lock.) Don’t be shy about doing a little backroad racing to understand the limits of your car or truck or taking advantage of an empty parking lot to brush up on your skid- ding skills.

Drive into accidents. When accidents happen, people have their foot jammed on the brake, their mouth open, and a desperate hope that they will stop in time. Avoiding accidents requires active control of your car combined with a clear picture of what is going on around you and knowledge of the capabilities of the vehicle. Swerving, gently steering into a skid, and knowing the limits of evasive maneuvers are also important.

Know the statistics. Driving at night, on the weekend, during rush hour, and even driving on secondary roads double the chance of an accident or fatality.

When driving or traveling by road abroad, realize that a lot of things you assumed Stateside no longer exist. Accident and fatality rates can be up to forty times higher in places like Egypt—and ten times higher in South Africa—than they are in the United States.


Motorcycles are by far the most dangerous vehicles on the road—twenty times more so than cars, according to some studies. And it doesn’t take a pathologist to figure out why. I enjoy racing motorcycles and have no problem sliding around a wide sweeper, my head a few inches from the track. No- tice I said track, not road.

You may take comfort in seeing the gray-bearded bikers on their hogs and Hondas, but remember that you don’t see the thousands of photographs of young kids who screwed up remembered in photographs on the mantels of their moms and dads.

Motorcycles have much different dynamics than cars. Use the brakes properly (more front than back), avoid the impulse to brake around corners (the bike will “stand up” and veer into oncoming traffic), and respect the limited adhesion motorcycles have in wet, dusty, and rough conditions.

Ride alone, wear a full face helmet and protective clothing. Being continuously prepared for an accident will help you think straight when things get tight. Before the deadly symphony of sheet metal and asphalt you have a few microseconds to hit the throttle, lean in harder, brake, or dump the bike. Having your best friend or hot date on the back will slow down the thinking process. Proper gloves and a helmet (most riders end up sliding on their hands and hitting their heads when they dump) are important even if they are cumbersome.

The best thing to do is to attend a motorcycle-riding course, such as those conducted by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Or even a racing course. They’re not required by law, but they should be. Simply having the ability to negotiate a serpentine laid out like mileage posts on an interstate highway in the DMV lot is not enough. The more comfortable you are with extreme situations and your machine, the greater the odds you will survive a little bit longer.

Pay attention. You can’t jump on a motorcycle with the same mind-set as hopping in a car. On a bike, you can’t talk on a cell phone, change CDs, chow down Big Macs, or smoke butts. You can’t shave or put on lipstick. Aboard a motorcycle you need to repeat the biker’s mantra: This activity could kill me today.


Accidents aren’t the simple fender-benders they once were. Scam artists, impersonal insurance judgments, and cops that steer clear of fender-benders “ ’cause there’s too much paperwork” make the downside of owning a car a bummer. I was once hit while parked at the side of the road. After helping the errant driver change a tire, I discovered from my insurance company that he had to be carried back to his house and was passing blood. It was all a scam, but it would have been his word against mine if I hadn’t had witnesses. Don’t assume that an accident is an accident. It could have been by design.


When an accident is imminent, try to avoid a direct collision. Running into a field, the median, or a fence is preferable.

After you are hit take a few seconds to look for oncoming traffic and then leave the car if you are able. If the accident is minor, move to the side of the road. Often pileups occur as people plow into cars blocking the road.

It is natural for adrenaline to be pumping and people to be upset, but do not argue, discuss, or talk about the accident. Focus on organizing the matter at hand.

Carry a disposable camera in your glove box at all times. If an accident occurs, shoot pictures from all four angles and note the hour, location, and weather conditions. Pace off skid marks and create a diagram. All of this will be invaluable in court or for insurance claims.

When you get the name and address of the other driver, also write down the license plate number and ask to see some form of ID. If the person is drunk or belligerent, get names of witnesses. Call the police or ask bystanders to get help. Do not attempt to pro- vide medical help in urban areas. It is important to wait for police to take statements, but remember that whatever you say will be introduced into evidence if you are sued.


Most of what you learned in driver’s education class can be thrown out the window when driving off-road in remote areas—along jungle trails, swamps, brushy savanna, and boulder-strewn deserts.

Driving off-road requires a different mind-set than traditional motoring. The emphasis isn’t on speed but, instead, maneuverability and terrain. You can run across a number of adverse conditions when driving in remote regions. I rarely come across a situation where a local’s description of the trail ahead is accurate. If you have to cross rough terrain, travel in convoy and be prepared to spend a lot more time than you originally estimated.

Here is a cheat sheet on how to deal with challenging conditions:

Soft sand: Deflate tires to about half their normal pressure. Apply power smoothly and consistently. The key is to keep speed up and stay on top of the sand. When stuck, do not rev the wheels, to avoid digging in. Soft sand dramatically reduces your fuel consumption and often leads to rollovers on dunes or slopes.

Slippery mud: Driving in deep mud can quickly high-center the vehicle, lifting the wheels off the ground and hanging up the vehicle on the frame or drivetrain. When driving through deep-rutted muddy paths, quickly flip the wheel back and forth to gain traction and break out of the ruts.

Snow: You can’t drive on snow without a firm base underneath. If possible, go down to the parking lot and get a feel for just how much extra room you will need for braking, turns, and other, trickier maneuvers. When stuck, rock the car slowly by backing up and then rolling forward gently. Be aware that doing this too roughly can damage your transmission. Use dirt, floor mats, clothing, or anything else on hand to create traction.

Ice: When driving on ice, it is important to remember that rubber does have traction on ice but not down hills or during sharp maneuvers. Often black ice (frozen water on clear roads) and sheer ice are undrivable at any rate of speed above a crawl. Use engine gearing instead of brakes, and when you accelerate, do so gently. Use sand or salt to create traction. Often a slight push to get the vehicle going can stop wheel spin. Radial tires perform best.

Flooding: The most mundane form of flooding can cause hydroplaning. Your tires surf over the water surface, usually covering the windshield with the spray and removing any control of the vehicle. Slow down and don’t assume that because the water is smooth the washed-out road beneath it is. If water is deep and you must cross, spray the electrics with WD-40 or coat with dipstick oil and fashion a snorkel for the air cleaner to raise the height of the air intake. Roll down the windows and open the doors, allowing the water to pour into the car. Drive slowly and with enough forward motion to create a bow wave and push the water ahead.

Descending steep hills: When faced with a seemingly impossible steep, slippery slope, you must remember to actively drive down the hill, even though your brain is screaming to brake, as it would be if you had just happened to jump off a cliff. This and all extreme maneuvers must be done in low-range four-wheel drive to provide maximum torque, control, and traction.

To descend a steep slope, you first have to pick the line you’ll follow and determine what you will do at the bottom of the hill (turn, stop, slow down gently). Then, with your passengers out of the vehicle, engage the lowest gear in 4WD and gently (we use this word a lot when it comes to off-road driving) let the vehicle roll down the hill, allowing the engine to do the braking work. If the rear end starts sliding, gently apply a little gas. If you are generating an unsafe speed at a stomach-curdling rate, gently pump the brakes— do not lock them. In my experience it is best to practice this gentle pumping at the top of the hill.

Climbing steep hills: Attempting steep ascents seems like fun until the vehicle starts to stall and then lugs to a stop halfway up. Then you are left wondering what the hell to do as your truck starts sliding down the hill, wheels locked and heading for a backward flip. The answer is to practice doing the reverse slam.

On your way up a steep, muddy, or slick hill build momentum and make sure you are in the lowest gear that will take you over the top. Usually first gear. Shifting gears halfway up the hill will cause you to lose too much momentum. Coming in too quickly gives you too much wheel spin and the vehicle loses power. Know the highest torque range and drive slightly above it. If you lose traction on a slippery slope, flick the steering wheel back and forth to gain traction. Once stopped or stalled, quickly jam into reverse, start the engine, and drive down.

If you begin sliding sideways, blip the throttle to straighten out. Vehicles with ABS may perform this task automatically, but you should still pump gently to gauge how the vehicle will swing out. On overly steep hills the vehicle may want to go ass-over-teakettle, but this can be compensated for by forward velocity. Always approach hills straight on, and for God’s sake know what’s on the other side of the peak.

Crossing ruts, barriers, and bogs: Always cross ditches at an angle rather than head-on to avoid being hung up. Barriers can be crossed, but you need to build up the approach and exit with material. If you are crossing bogs, deflating the tires and keeping your speed up can help, but walk it first because if you can’t walk across, you can’t drive across. Hilly terrain provides a major problem, since most vehicles will roll if the angle of the vehicle exceeds 35° to 40°.

The best advice is to understand that off-road vehicles are not actually meant to go “off-road.” Even tanks aren’t. They just do a little better at handling off-road environments than do conventional passenger cars. Ignore those snazzy commercials starring high-speed, mud-spraying acrobats with macho, National Geographic-sounding names like Explorer, Expedition, Sierra, and Discovery. Instead, these vehicles should be driven, even off-road, as though you were driving your three-year-old to a dentist appointment— or as if you were driving home from the car wash with a cargo of nitroglycerin.


In this era of black boxes and computerized, fuel-injected V-10s, the days of playing roadside mechanic under a shade tree are long gone. Sure, if you drive an old Jeep or Land-Rover, you can fix just about anything with a small tool kit and a cache of spare parts. But with today’s automobiles, if you develop a problem or break down on the road, you may as well go fishing while waiting for a flatbed tow truck.

Gas engines work on the principle of injecting fuel and air into a chamber, which is ignited with a spark to push a drivetrain to propel the vehicle. Usually, a car will not start because it is missing one of the three primary ingredients to put it in motion: electricity, gas, or air. If an engine runs but won’t “go,” the problem is with the drivetrain.

Electrical failures can most likely be sourced at the battery. A starter needs a good amount of battery power and an engine that isn’t frozen. If you hear a clicking sound, you are listening to a solenoid and a dead battery. Your options are to push-start it (not an easy feat for an automatic transmission), get a jump start from another vehicle, or get a new battery.

If the engine turns over but won’t start, check for your three key elements of combustion. Pop off the air cleaner to check for clear air passage, disconnect one spark plug lead to see if it arcs, and then smell the carburetor to check for fuel. If your car has spark, air, and fuel, then it is the mixture that needs attention. Your plugs are probably fouled and need to be removed and cleaned.

Many people flood their stalled cars by pumping the gas pedal. Modern fuel-injected cars need no extra help. In cold conditions push the gas pedal to the floor and then turn the key for ten seconds. If it is warm, don’t push the gas but turn the key and then slowly push down on the gas. If there is no spark on any of the leads, then your problem is in the ignition. If there is no gas, take the gas cap off and wiggle the vehicle to see if there is gas in the tank. If you still can’t get your vehicle going, leave a note and start walking. If it’s snowing, hot, or you are halfway across the Sahara, stay with your vehicle. It is now your new home.


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