WASHINGTON - The faulty General Motors ignition switches blamed for dozens of crashes, some fatal, aren't the only reason a moving car can suddenly stall. It happened to Bill Van Tassel a couple of weeks ago, as he was steering his Mazda Miata around a turn on an Interstate onramp.
"This type of thing could happen at any time. It's going to be completely unexpected," he says.
Van Tassel's problem had nothing to do with his ignition. His engine quit because it ran out of gas; he says a broken fuel sensor had fooled him. And he was better prepared than most folks: He's in charge of driver training programs for AAA.
Here are his tips for what to do if your car's engine suddenly quits, making it harder to steer and leaving you at the mercy of other traffic.
STEP BY STEP
If your engine quits:
• Look for the safest way off the road. That usually means heading for the right shoulder, but on a divided freeway you may be closer to the left.
• Use your turn indicator to signal where you're going. Emergency flashers, if you can turn them on easily.
• Don't panic if it feels like the steering isn't working. Pull harder. And be ready to push extra hard on the brakes if necessary.
• But if cars are buzzing past on a freeway, you don't want to stomp on the brakes. Let the car's momentum help you navigate through high-speed traffic toward the shoulder.
• Try to stop your car as far off the road as possible. In most cases, it's safer to move well away from the car before calling for help. Never stand behind or in front of your vehicle, because it may be struck by another car.
• f your car stops in the middle of a busy road, you may be safer staying inside, with seat belt on.
FOR EXPERIENCED DRIVERS
Other moves may help, if you feel comfortable using them:
• To help slow the car: Shift into low gear. But many drivers of automatic transmissions aren't in the habit of using the low gears.
• To avoid slowing down too suddenly, shift into neutral to maximize your momentum. But nervous drivers could be at risk of shifting into reverse by mistake.
BE READY BEFORE TROUBLE COMES
When everything is working fine, that's the time to practice moves you might need in a scary situation.
For example, know where the emergency flasher switch is, so you won't have to hunt around.
Van Tassel, based in Heathrow, Florida, suggests finding a level, empty parking lot to practice controlling your car without the engine. In a car with an ignition key, drive about 10 mph, then turn the key back one click to "accessories" mode. (Don't click again to "off," because that might lock the steering wheel.)
When the engine cuts off, in most cases you'll lose power steering, making it hard to turn the wheel, and power brakes will follow soon after. You can still steer and stop but it requires much more force.
ON THE ROAD
Remember what they said in driver's ed: Keep a cushion of space between you and the cars in front and to either side. Be ready to react in an emergency.
Wear your seat belt; at least 13 people have died in the recalled GM cars in accidents in which the air bags failed to deploy after the ignition switches clicked out of the "run" position.
GM advises drivers whose recalled cars haven't been fixed yet to use only the ignition key, with nothing else on the key ring, because heavier key rings increase the risk.
NO MATTER WHAT
Cars can stall for all sorts of reasons: They're out of gas; the alternator, transmission or another part breaks, or the car runs over something that damages the engine.
Being prepared is important.
"You don't want to just throw your hands up and cover your eyes," says Van Tassel. "You've got some options. It's a bad situation, no matter what, but you're trying to reduce the risk."
What did he do when his engine quit? "I got it stopped on the end of the entrance ramp, before it got into the Interstate, turned on the blinkers, got out of the car and moved up a slope so I was well away from traffic," he says. "And, of course, I called AAA."