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stay safe on the road

Any number of things can happen while you or a loved one is driving. This MasterKit will guard you against many of them. With a little planning, you'll learn the best ways to build a car emergency kit, talk to your family about road safety, and keep your cool after an accident.
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How to Handle Common Driving Hazards

If your brakes failed or you hit a deer, would you know what to do? A lot can go wrong on the road, which is why learning how to react to emergencies on the road is so important. These tips to help you deal with some the most common driving hazards will quickly and safely to get you back on your way.

Many common driving hazards can be avoided entirely, but your car, other drivers, and wild animals can all do unpredictable and dangerous things. Rather than worry about what might go wrong, and when, learn how to keep yourself safe and get out of the situation as quickly as possible.

In each of the following scenarios, it's important to get your vehicle to the side of the road and out of the path of traffic, if possible. Remember to use the emergency flashers and raise the hood so the vehicle can be seen by other motorists. If you’re unable to move the vehicle off the roadway, consider standing somewhere nearby. Stay away from the road so you're not injured if the vehicle is struck by a passing car.
Mechanical Hazards
1. Overheated Engine
overheated engine
Signs and symptoms: Steam (which can look like smoke) coming from hood, temperature gauge reading above normal, unusual burning smell from engine.
How to avoid: Always keep an eye on your car's temperature gauge on the dashboard. It will alert you if your car is running hot and also indicate at least a range of your car’s normal operating temperature.
What to do: Pull over right away and turn the engine off. Allow it to completely cool before attempting to locate the problem – do not open the radiator cap. You can, however, look for signs of a fluid leak under the vehicle as well as search for smaller leaks under the hood. Once the engine is cool enough to drive, you should probably take it to a mechanic for a diagnostic, because driving a severely overheated engine can do serious damage.
Learn more: If you can't pull over right away, make sure the air conditioning is turned off to reduce stress on the engine. You can also turn on the heater to pull some of the heat out of the engine bay and into the car's cabin. Turning the heat on acts as a radiator to help cool the engine quicker.
2. Engine Failure
engine failure
Signs and symptoms: Total loss of power, repeated stalling, check engine light illuminated, unusual noises and odors coming from engine.
How to avoid: Take good care of your engine by following your car's recommended maintenance schedule. On the road, pay attention to emergency indicators on your dashboard. If your engine is overheating or the oil pressure is low, continuing to drive could cause engine failure.
What to do: If you suspect engine failure is imminent or if the engine has already failed, find a safe place to pull over and call for help. The car will need to be towed to a mechanic for repair.
Learn more: Even if you manage to stop the car before the engine actually fails, the engine might have suffered severe damage and should be thoroughly inspected before you drive it again.
3. Brake Failure
brake failure
Signs and symptoms: Brake light illuminated, grinding or squealing noises when you push brake pedal, brake pedal feels "spongy" or soft, car pulls to one side when braking - aka "grabbing", difficulty stopping car when you brake, total loss of brake pedal.
How to avoid: Proper maintenance will usually keep the brakes from failing suddenly. Keep the floor of your vehicle clean (so things don't roll behind the brake pedal) and follow your car manufacturer's recommendations for brake maintenance.
What to do: As soon as you notice your brakes aren't working, stop accelerating if it's safe to do so. If there is some pressure in the brake pedal and it will go down when pushed, keep pushing it while looking for a safe place to pull over. If the brake pedal does not go down when pushed, use your foot to see if there is trash or debris behind the pedal (but first, move to a slower lane of traffic, if you can, and keep your eyes on the road). If the brake pedal depresses but there's no pressure and the car doesn't slow down, remain calm. Look for a safe place to coast to a stop, if possible. Do not use the emergency brake until you are traveling very slowly.
Learn more: If the car you are driving has a manual transmission, gently downshift as the car slows down. If the car is an automatic, shift below drive into third, second, and then first gears. Both methods will help reduce the car's speed, but beware of drivers behind you who will not see your brake light and may not realize you are slowing down. You can turn on your hazard lights to warn the vehicles around you that you are having problems.
4. Dead Battery
dead battery
Signs and symptoms: Engine cranks but won't start, engine won't crank or start, and no lights, radio, or electronics.
How to avoid: Car batteries usually show signs of age before they simply die. If you notice the battery indicator on the dash, electronic accessories "flickering," or your car struggling to start, it's probably time to replace the battery before it leaves you stranded. A mechanic can test the battery and the charging system for you.
What to do: If your car won't start because the battery is dead, call a friend or a roadside assistance organization to help you with a jump-start. If the battery light comes on while you are driving, that usually means the alternator is not charging the battery. Turn off all non-essential accessories (like the radio and air conditioning) and look for a safe place to stop.
Learn more: Jump-starting a car can be dangerous if you do it incorrectly, so it's a good idea to learn how to perform this task before you actually need it.
5. Ran Out of Gas
car without gas
Signs and symptoms: Car won't start, engine stalls as you drive, gas light indicator is illuminated.
How to avoid: Keep an eye on your car's gas gauge and plot out your trip. If you're driving in an isolated area, know how long you can go before you need fuel, and identify your next fuel stop in advance. If your car's fuel gauge stops working, figure out how many miles you can drive on a full tank and keep track of how far you go after each fill-up.
What to do: As soon as your car starts slowing down and coasting to a stop, try to get to the side of the road. If you can call a roadside assistance organization or a friend to help you, that's the easiest way to get going again. If you're close to a gas station, the station might sell you a small plastic gas can that you can then fill up and carry back to your car.
Learn more: It might seem like a good idea to keep an extra gallon or two of gasoline in your trunk, but it's also dangerous. The fumes can reach you and your passengers and make you sick, and even an empty can contains enough fumes to potentially cause an explosion.
6. Tire Blowout/Flat
tire blowout and flat
Signs and symptoms: Loud popping noise accompanied by jerking of steering wheel, steering feels off, car keeps slowing down, unusual grinding noises are heard.
How to avoid: Get in the habit of visually inspecting your car's tires at least once a month, and even more often if you live somewhere with a cold climate or roads that are in poor condition. Always check your tires before a long trip. If they seem to be losing air quickly or wearing unevenly, they should be checked out by a mechanic.
What to do: If your tire goes flat or blows out while you're driving, slow down and pull over as soon as you can, preferably to a level, firm surface where you can use the jack to lift the car. If you can change the flat yourself, great. If not, call a tow truck. It's not safe to drive on a flat or blown tire and it can cause considerable damage to your car.
Learn more: Some late-model cars are sold with run-flat tires and no longer come with a spare in the trunk. Familiarize yourself with your vehicle and its equipment before you find yourself in a hazardous situation. That way, you won't waste time looking for something that isn't there.
Environmental Hazards
7. Road Debris
avoid road debris
Signs and symptoms: Loud noise, obvious feeling that you've hit something, and debris.
How to avoid: Drive defensively, scanning the road ahead of you for obstructions, and stay within speed limits so you have enough time to react to an obstacle. If you can, avoid swerving to miss the debris. A 2016 report from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety revealed that, between 2011 and 2014, there were 500 deaths from crashes blamed on road debris, and one-third of those deaths were due to a driver swerving.1
What to do: If you hit a large piece of debris that damages your car, get to the side of the road and inspect it as soon as possible. Alert the local police or highway patrol so they can remove the obstruction from the roadway. Take pictures if you can, in case you need to file an insurance claim. Don't drive your car if it's unsafe and call a tow truck instead.
Learn more: You can avoid contributing to the road debris problem by making sure your load is secured, whether it's on a trailer, a roof rack, in a trunk, or in a pickup truck bed. Clean your car regularly to prevent trash and other items from falling out.
8. Hit and Run
hit and run
Signs and symptoms: Another car hits your vehicle and drives away.
How to avoid: You can practice everyday vigilance and defensive driving tactics, but there's not much you can do to prevent the other driver in a crash from taking off.
What to do: Your priority should be to remain safe, but do try to get the other car's license plate number and issuing state. Then, start writing down details, such as a description of the vehicle and the driver, as well as whatever details you remember about the collision. Then, call the police to make a report. The final step is filing an insurance claim.
Learn more: The more details you can write down, and the quicker you can provide them to the police, the better, but don't forget that your safety is paramount.
9. Hit a Large Animal
hitting a large animal
Signs and symptoms: You see a large animal in front of you and you can't avoid hitting it.
How to avoid: Be extra cautious in areas with frequent animal activity. Deer and other large animals tend to move in packs and are typically most active before sunrise and after sunset. Scan the road ahead of your car and use the high beams when possible. As soon as you see a large animal, slow down and try to avoid it, but don’t swerve into another lane of traffic or off the road. It's generally safer to hit the animal than to swerve around it. If a crash is unavoidable, reduce speed as much as you can and hold the steering wheel steady.
What to do: If you hit a large animal, it's best to keep your vehicle where it is and switch on your hazard lights. That will keep other vehicles from hitting your car and possibly the injured (or dead) animal. Call 911 for an accident report, which you'll need for an insurance claim.
Learn more: It's probably best to let the authorities deal with a dead or wounded animal. If the animal is still alive, it may cause you serious injury.
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