photo courtesy of Chris Scheufele @ creative commons
Cars are so reliable these days; it's easy to forget that you can still have an emergency.
Here's our Top 10 list of the things that should cause you to pull your car over immediately.
(We know, this was supposed to be only 10 reasons to pull over immediately, but we thought of a few more. So sue us!)
12. Losing Something 'Essential'
We're sure this has happened to you. You're driving along and you reach into your glove box to grab your Sleepy LaBeef CD. As you're fumbling to open the CD case with one hand, the CD pops out and falls on the floor, under your legs. What do you do? Too many people bend down while they're driving and try to find Sleepy's greatest hits. Don't do it. Remember that at 65 mph every second your head spends down between your knees your car moves almost 100 feet without a driver! Besides, if your head is down there when you crash it could end up firmly implanted somewhere embarrassing. One might even argue that it already is in that dark place if you engage in this risky behavior.
So if you drop something — a CD, your keys, your phone, a french fry — either let it sit there until you get to your destination or pull over before you fish it out.
11. Cabin Chaos
Sometimes things get exciting inside a car. The kids, who normally slap and pinch each other suddenly pull out kitchen knives. Or your Labrador sees a cute little poodle crossing the street and jumps into your lap to get a closer look. Or your mother-in-law announces that she's just filled her Depends. Don't try to solve problems like these and drive at the same time. You can't. It's tempting to try to reach the kids in the backseat and separate them or toss the dog into the backseat or help your mother-in-law... nevermind. It's much wiser to pull over and get things back under control. Then get back on the road.
10. Medical Emergency
If you think that you may be experiencing a medical problem, pull over right away. We've heard too many stories about people who have all the signs of a stroke or heart attack, yet they decide to try to "make it home" before calling for help. This is a recipe for killing yourself and other people on the road. If you have any reason to believe you're getting seriously ill, pull over and call for help. That's what 911 is for.
Even less deadly medical problems can make us lousy drivers. So consider pulling over and resting if you have something in your eye, a migraine headache or intense heartburn. Pull over if you can't sit still because you need to use the bathroom (or the bushes next to the road) or if you drop cigar ash between your legs. Anything that causes you to worry more about some part of your body than what's happening on the road in front of you is a good reason to pull over and stop driving until the problem is solved.
9. Lack of Visibility
We tend to forget that when we're driving we're piloting a 3,000-pound projectile. And when you're going 65 mph, you're covering 96 feet in one second. It'll take you 316 feet to come to a complete stop under ideal conditions. For that reason, it's good to be able to see!
Your visibility can suddenly become impaired for all kinds of reasons: a sudden downpour, thick fog, broken windshield wipers, a big splash of mud and an empty windshield washer reservoir, a flying projectile that cracks your windshield or a hood latch that breaks and sends the hood flying up while you're driving. And this doesn't even count the most common source of poor visibility — failure to clean off the windshield when it's snowy or icy. Bottom line: If you can't see well for any reason, pull over right away and either fix the problem or wait until the weather changes before getting back on the road.
8. Any Loud or Sudden Noise
Your car is not supposed to make any loud, sudden or unidentifiable noises. A loud or sudden noise can be benign. It could be a plastic milk jug that you ran over. On the other hand, it could also mean that your engine just launched a spark plug into low-Earth orbit.
Unless it's a milk jug, it indicates that something has just changed. It's changed from one piece to several pieces or changed from attached to unattached. Either way, it's best to pull over and try to figure it out.
7. Temperature Light or Oil Light
There are very few things that can wreck a car in less than two minutes. There's a direct hit by a meteor or a Caterpillar D9. Fortunately, both are very uncommon. But there are two common things that can ruin cars — severe overheating and loss of oil pressure. Your dashboard has idiot lights for both of these conditions. They're talking to you, pal.
If either of those lights comes on, don't try to make it home before investigating. Driving with no oil pressure can wreck a car's internal parts in minutes. Or less. Severe overheating can blow your head gasket or warp or crack your cylinder head or block just as quickly.
A customer of ours had the oil light come on and drove home before calling us. We asked her, "Why did you try to get home?" She said she felt safer at home. That's understandable, we said, but that feeling of safety just cost you $7,000! If you see the oil light or hot light, unless it's unsafe to do so, pull over and call for help.
6. Sudden Change in Handling
If something changes in your car's handling and you can feel it in your steering wheel, chances are it is serious. It could be a sudden, extreme change like a tire blowing out or a wheel about to fall off. Or you might notice that the steering wheel is suddenly wobbling or tugging in one direction. These are all potentially serious problems that require pulling over.
Not every change in handling is dire. A small wobble could be something relatively minor like a lost wheel weight or a bad tire. It could be as simple as a change in road surface. Here's the catch: If you try to make an on-the-fly diagnosis, you risk driving over a guard rail and onto a nearby putting green. Or much worse. There are a lot of crucial pieces in the front end of the car. Because they're attached to the front wheels you can often feel a change in the steering wheel. Pay attention to it.
5. Steam/Water Vapor
Steam is usually an indication that coolant, which is under pressure, is escaping from your car's cooling system. If it's leaking slowly and hitting an exhaust pipe or something else that's hot, it may not be an emergency. But if it's leaking quickly, you can overheat the engine and do serious damage to your engine and your wallet. If your engine is overheating, you can sometimes save yourself thousands of dollars by pulling over before permanent damage is done.
Don't twist off the radiator cap right away to have a look-see. If your car is overheating, or even if it's not, the coolant is under very high pressure and can burn your face until it looks as bad as my brother's. So if you're not mechanically inclined, pull over, turn off your engine and find a good, local garage that can lend a hand.
We each know what our car smells like: Mostly, it smells like us, which is why it offends other people. Or it may smell like some combination of new-car smell, wet dog, old juice boxes and maybe grandma. If you notice a new smell — especially if you know it didn't come from you — it's best to pull over and investigate it. It could be relatively benign such as when you drive over a plastic grocery bag and it sticks to your hot catalytic converter or a meatball sub that slid under the passenger seat. But it could be something more serious like wire insulation burning or a gas leak. So if you notice a smell that's unusual and you can't identify it, it's best to pull over and make sure it's nothing getting ready to cause a disaster.
Your two primary concerns are gasoline, which you should never smell in the passenger compartment once you're moving, and something that's smoldering and could catch fire. Smoldering electrical wires are the most common source of fire. Once you pull over, you should investigate the smell carefully. And if you're at all concerned, call for help.
There are lots of reasons why smoke might be issuing forth from your vehicle. But almost all of them are bad. Some are not emergencies such as when engine oil is dripping onto a hot exhaust pipe since a small amount of oil can produce a lot of smoke. But other times where there's smoke, there's fire. Or there soon will be. If you see smoke, it's best to pull over and check it out.
If you see flames spouting from anywhere in your car, pull over immediately. Not only is your car beginning to turn into automotive flambé before your eyes, but there's a risk to your life, as well. Even if the flames aren't burning you, per se, the fumes may be doing you in. So unless you're a trained firefighter, the best thing to do is look out for your own safety. Pull over, lace up your Pro Keds, get a safe distance away from your car and call 911. Then, and only then, do we advise pulling out your long, pronged fork and roasting marshmallows.
1. Blue Lights
Remember what happens if you don't pull over when you see blue lights.
One final note: What does it mean to "pull over immediately"? It means pull over as quickly as it's safe to do so. Don't swerve across five lanes of traffic. Check around you. Check the side of the road to see if there's a place to pull off. And then pull over.