Offgrid Transportation The Will to Drive On: Emergency Driving Skills
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Photos by Steven Kuo and Patrick McCarthy
WARNING! This article is meant to be a quick overview and not a detailed guide on high-speed performance driving. Seek qualified instruction from a reputable trainer before attempting any of the techniques discussed in this article.
A 2016 article published by the American Automobile Association states that, on average, Americans are behind the wheel for 17,600 minutes per year. Yet most people are woefully underprepared to best utilize their vehicle in an emergency situation. This is usually not a result of willful neglect or even lack of effort. People simply don’t know what they don’t know about driving. And, like shooting, the number of reliable sources for quality information versus the number of people who need that information is simply depressing when pondered too seriously.
We read about these situations in the news, but never think it’ll happen to us. What if you’re being chased? What if a simple “forgot to signal” mistake on your part provokes someone high on drugs to try running you off the road? What if one or more cars attempt to barricade you in so you’ll be kidnapped or carjacked? What if you’re a passenger and the driver of the car falls unconscious? These are just a few of the situations you can learn to handle at Bondurant School of High Performance Driving.
As the name implies, the school was founded by racing legend Bob Bondurant and is the oldest continuously operating performance-driving school in the country. You may be tempted to dismiss a racing school as niche, saying to yourself, I’m not a race car driver. Why do I need to learn how to race?
Notice that the name of the school is not Bondurant School of go-really-fast-in-a-circle. The principles of high-performance driving (or HPD) can be successfully applied to any vehicle and any situation to life-saving effect. This was proven to us when several RECOIL OFFGRID staff members took a trip to Bondurant to learn first-hand from the experts exactly how HPD can Help us be Prepared Daily. (See what we did there?)
For our first exercise, about half our class piled into a 12-passenger van. An instructor got behind the wheel and proceeded to drive the full length of the track at highway speed. While the author nearly lost his lunch sitting all the way in the back, we all learned a very valuable point: lessons learned from high-performance driving aren’t restricted to high-performance vehicles. Said lessons involve much more than speed. In fact, most of what we learned had more to do with vehicle handling. Specifically, how to maneuver your vehicle to create an advantage across a wide array of potential emergencies.
Our time at Bondurant was spent immersed in their three-day Executive Protection Driving program. This is a class that Bondurant has taught to private protection teams, special operations units, and law enforcement groups. While the class is grounded in the foundations of performance driving, it included additional material designed to help cope with some in-extremis situations you might encounter behind the wheel.
Scenario: The Stalker
Like most people, you have a favorite route you like to take to and from work. You see it twice a day, five days a week. You may not think about it consciously, but you’re well-accustomed to “normal” patterns along these roads. That’s why it struck you as strange to see the same ratty minivan with the same license plate popping up along your commute.
The first time, it followed behind you for over five miles before turning off onto a side road. Maybe a little weird, but it’s a busy road and a main thoroughfare, so probably just coincidence or someone who has the same route as you do. Two days later, you spotted the same minivan parked outside of your office while walking to your car after work. Several days after that, it showed up immediately after you picked your daughter up from school and tailgated behind you almost all the way home. When you turned into your driveway, they slowed down, but kept going straight and looked over as if observing you.
Tonight, you’re headed out to drop off your daughter at her friend’s house for a sleepover. You pull out of your driveway and start to head down your street when suddenly that ratty van seems to come out of nowhere, pulling across the intersection and stopping. It’s a narrow residential street, so you don’t have enough room to go around him — you’re blocked. That’s when the doors open, and two guys step out. One has a gun, and the other opens the back of the van up and two other men in masks get out. You're outnumbered, unarmed, the lives of you and your child are clearly in danger, and there’s only seconds to react. What do you do?
Protective Driving Skill #1: Reverse 180
CONCEPT: A technique known as the reverse 180 (also called a J-turn) might be able to get you away from this threat in a hurry. The idea is to accelerate quickly in reverse and swing your vehicle in a hard 180-degree turn to orient you away from the threat. Then, simply press on the gas and get out of dodge. This is a fast way to break contact with a threat when you cannot simply drive through.
OVERVIEW: Check to make sure there are no obstacles behind you. Hit the gas and pick up speed going backward. When you get to about 30 mph, let off the gas to shift the car's weight, and quickly spin the steering wheel hard right or left, depending on which way you want to turn. Don't touch the brake pedal! Momentum and the sudden change in direction will cause the vehicle to pivot around its rear end until you’re facing the direction of travel and “reverse” is now “forward.” About halfway through the turn, shift the car into drive and start to bring the wheel to center. When you’re facing forward, get back on the gas to continue traveling away from the threat.
CONSIDERATIONS: Know what’s behind you before you begin this maneuver! Your escape will be utterly ineffective if you throw it in reverse and stomp that pedal only to back into another car. Similarly, make sure you have enough room to swing the vehicle. You don’t need much, but if you’re on a one-way street that’s lined on both sides with parked cars, you might not make it. Also check the rearview and find your escape route before you start to reverse. Know where you’re going to go once you get turned around. Additionally, become familiar with your vehicle — some have speed limiters in reverse gear.
Scenario: Road Rage
It’s late on a weeknight. You’re on your way home from a friend’s house, about 45 minutes away. It’s way past your normal bedtime for a work night, and the highway is pretty much empty. You haven’t seen a single state trooper and only a couple other cars. But one of those other cars comes roaring past you on the shoulder and cuts sharply into your lane. You brake hard and honk, cussing at your windshield.
You change lanes, but the car in front of you changes lanes with you, blocking you from passing. You flash your high beams and honk again. The other vehicle gets out of your lane and slams on the brakes. You pass them, only to have them pull up dangerously close behind you and throw on their high beams. You speed up to try and get away from them, but their car is faster than yours. They continue to follow ridiculously close, blinding you, honking, and tapping your bumper. Your vehicle just isn’t up to the task of outrunning them — as the saying goes, where’s a cop when you need one?
Protective Driving Skill #2: The PIT Maneuver
CONCEPT: A move made popular by law enforcement, the Precision Immobilization Technique aka Pursuit Intervention Technique is meant to end car chases and stop fleeing suspects by pushing their vehicle into a spin in a controlled and (relatively) safe manner.
OVERVIEW: The principle is simple, if not easy. Match speed with the assailant’s vehicle and line up your front left quarter-panel a few inches from their right rear quarter-panel (or vice versa for the other side). Then, gently turn your vehicle into theirs and accelerate. Be sure when turning into their car that your front wheel is behind their rear wheel. If executed properly, the target vehicle should spin out 180 degrees while you maintain control and continue in your original direction of travel.
CONSIDERATIONS: There are several very serious considerations when entertaining the idea of attempting to PIT out another vehicle. The first is legality. If you try this move on your nearest interstate, it'll likely be considered vehicular assault. Furthermore, if the car you PIT spins into another vehicle or off the road and anybody gets injured — or worse — you’ll likely have to answer for that if and when you do make it out of the immediate crisis. Also, there’s a reason they call this a precision technique. You must be able to match the other vehicle’s speed exactly — and while in the perfect position. Too far back and you cause them to fishtail slightly, but not spin. Too far forward and you will just dent the door.
Also, this isn’t a hard slam into the broad side of your target vehicles, like in Hollywood car chases. This is a gentle nudge — a gradual pressure applied from your car to theirs, perpendicular to direction of travel. Don’t forget to accelerate as you begin turning into their car until they begin spinning out. If they turn, change lanes, brake, or accelerate, you will have to mirror all of those changes while holding that rear quarter-panel position. Even in our practice sessions at Bondurant alongside a relatively cooperative “suspect” vehicle, this technique was tricky to pull off.
Furthermore, PIT maneuvers can be countered or “short-circuited” with a little bit of effort. As stated above, this move is heavily predicated on proper position and spacing of the two vehicles. Any sudden changes in speed or lane position forces the person initiating the PIT to start from scratch, re-positioning their vehicle. It’s possible for this loop to go on ad infinitum if the target vehicle is constantly changing rate of speed or swerving back and forth across the road.
Scenario: Attempted Kidnapping
You’re on a business trip to a foreign country that has a reputation for taking foreigners hostage. It’s been several days and despite some apprehension before you left home, your experience here so far has been positive. You’re driving from downtown back to where you’re staying and wind up right in the middle of a traffic jam. As your vehicle crawls closer to the source, you see a man in military fatigues waving people along on the road.
As you get up to the soldier, he waves you down a muddy side road, and a truck full of shirtless men pulls out to follow you. You’re not sure about this, but the soldier was very insistent. A quarter-mile down the road, you find yourself approaching a shoddy-looking checkpoint. Far from official, it seems to just be a large sedan parked sideways in the middle of the road, flanked by teenagers in ratty street clothes with AK-47s slung over their shoulders. With the truck immediately behind you, a reverse 180 won’t be possible.
Protective Driving Skill #3: Pushing Through a Vehicular Blockade
CONCEPT: Using your vehicle to ram into another vehicle is far from ideal. But there’s a right way to do it that can minimize damage to your car and allow you to make a hasty escape when there is no less-violent option.
OVERVIEW: Accelerate hard to build up speed, and try to align the corner of your vehicle’s frame with one of the axles of the other vehicle. As you approach the target vehicle, abruptly lift off the accelerator and coast for a short distance to transfer weight to the front of your vehicle. When you’re a few feet from the blocking vehicle, get back on the gas pedal aggressively. This burst of power applied at the right moment should lift the nose of your vehicle and give you the momentum to lift and shove the other car out of the way, spinning it 90 degrees.
CONSIDERATIONS: When this technique was first developed, cars were built with body-on-frame construction like modern-day pickup trucks. If your vehicle has a unibody construction, apply the same principles with the understanding that the damage will be more significant. If you have airbags, they’ll almost certainly deploy on impact. This may disorient you and impede your ability to escape. Also, know that vehicle size and weight will play a large part in determining the feasibility of this in your specific situation. If you’re in a compact city car and the road is blocked by a heavy-duty pickup truck, the odds — and laws of physics — will be stacked against you.
Scenario: Evading a Collision
You and your loved ones are taking a weekend afternoon drive up through the mountains. There’s not a building in sight for miles, and the road is a wide-open two-lane blacktop. The weather is gorgeous; you’ve got the windows down and the radio up, and everything is serene. An 18-wheel tractor trailer crests the horizon coming toward you in the opposite lane.
Normally not a big deal, as this road is often used by long-haul truckers to dodge interstate traffic. But as the two of you get closer and closer, each going a few miles above the posted speed limit, the truck swerves into your lane and is now heading directly for you. Stopping would be useless, and you can’t trade lanes with the truck as there’s already more traffic coming toward you on that side as well. The roadside is a soft shoulder of dirt, gravel, and overgrown weeds. But it beats a head-on collision.
Protective Driving Skill #4: Dirt-to-Pavement Transition
CONCEPT: Rather than a specific technique, the instructors at Bondurant gave us more of a set of guidelines on how to deal with rapidly changing road conditions. There are plenty of situations on the road better handled by a controlled transition to off-road than slamming on the brake pedal or trying to swerve into the next lane with no warning.
OVERVIEW: Don’t give up your control of the vehicle. Veer off the road in a controlled turn, just like you would take an off-ramp on the highway. Once you’ve avoided the obstacle on the road, you’ll want to try and square up your front end toward the road as much as possible. Keep an even foot on the accelerator at a safe speed and, once you’re back on the road, orient properly into your lane as quickly as possible and speed up/slow down as necessary for the flow of traffic.
CONSIDERATIONS: Once your wheels hit the dirt/gravel/grass, you’ll lose some responsiveness in steering and braking. Keep your mind and your wheel ahead of the vehicle. If you turn the wheel right, don’t wait for the car to start skidding before you correct the wheel back to center. If the surface is loose gravel or sandy, any sudden acceleration or braking might induce a loss of traction. The key is to be smooth in all your inputs (steering, braking, acceleration) and anticipate the vehicle’s next move.
While our descriptions of countermeasures are meant to help you understand possible solutions, nothing can truly take the place of empirical knowledge. Like any other aspect of preparation, reading about it and practicing it alongside trained instructors are two different things. A vehicle is an extension of yourself, and like a firearm or knife, it’s only as effective as the person wielding it. You won’t get this kind of training with DMV instructors.
Think of that rush of panic that goes through you when you’ve had to slam on the brakes suddenly or when you start to hydroplane after it’s been raining. Multiply that times a thousand in a situation where your only hope for survival is how well you can control that four-wheeled machine you’re sitting in. Consider signing up for a course at a high-performance driving school like Bondurant, so you can truly understand and experience the physics behind it.
Bondurant Racing School – www.bondurant.com
For more lessons learned from our time at Bondurant, check out the OFFGRIDweb-exclusive article “Driving Force: Lessons Learned at Bondurant Racing School”.