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Drive Guide: Auto Emergencies

What to do when something goes wrong

by Autobytel Staff
May 2, 2007
3 min. Reading Time

Sun burnt, happy and fun-fatigued, we were cruising along on California Interstate 15 when our vacation was cut short by silence, as in no engine growl, just the muted whirr of tires rolling along with no power.

We had gone Gilligan. Broken down, stranded, with no power or cell phone, stuck between Barstow and Needles, sitting inside a tube of metal.

So much for fun-fatigued. We were now suffering from roadside remorse, and would soon be hit with a sobering case of Local's Repair Shop Revenge. We had made sure the car was road-worthy before we left, had prepared meticulously for the trip. What more could we have done to avoid being stuck in Needles, paying Joe Buck's shop rent for the month?

We could have prepared for a breakdown, even though we were sure it would not happen. Fact is, accidents and breakdowns do happen despite the best intentions. Read the tips below so you're prepared, just in case…

Button locks: Use a wire or a coat hanger. Straighten the wire and make a small loop or fishhook shape at one end. Slip the wire through the crack of the window or down through the top crack of the door. You may slip the wire past the weather-stripping of the door. Jiggle the wire around so that the hook will loop around the button lock and then try to lift up the lock. Have a lot of patience.

If you are unable to pull up the lock for some reason, call a police station and tell them the circumstances. A service station may also help to unlock the door. The police call is free - a service station will probably charge about $25.00.

NOTE: The weather-stripping around the window often costs more than the locksmith or tow truck driver's fee. Most have a tool that fits into the door jamb and can be inflated, prying out the door frame around the window just enough to get the appropriate lock-popping device inside without damaging any weather-stripping.

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When moving the car, keep a steady rate of speed to prevent getting stuck again. Drive slowly. The car may skid some, but as long as it is moving, chances of getting to solid ground are at the maximum. To get off an ice patch, try kitty litter, sand, dirt, or floor mats for friction. Sprinkle the abrasives under the drive wheels for about fifteen feet.

Put the sack of sand or kitty litter back into the trunk and don't stop for anything until the car is on solid ground. Try not to spin the wheels, but if no abrasive material is available, try letting some air out of the tires to widen the tires contact surface and increase traction.

There are many ways to free a car from the snow. Try rocking the car back and forth by shifting quickly from drive (or first gear) to reverse. Work out a rhythm to the rocking. After rocking for a few minutes, shift into neutral and increase engine speed to let the transmission cool. Once the car is free, keep it moving. Keep the wheels as straight as possible while rocking. If the wheels heat up, let them cool before continuing. Heated tires will sink deeper into the snow. Don't spin the wheels; this will heat up the wheels and also cause ice to form under the wheels. Put a manual transmission into second gear to rock it.

You may be able to shovel enough snow away from the wheels to get some traction. If there is no shovel, use the base of the jack or fold over the floor mat in the place of the shovel. Car chains probably can't be mounted at this time, but they may be used to provide traction. Tie the chains to the bumper so that the car will pull them along until you are on solid ground, but not too tight. If they snag on something you want the material used to tie them to give, not your bumper. Strap chains are handy for traction on ice, snow, and sometimes on mud. They can be mounted without jacking up the car.

Put several bags of sand in the trunk of the car for added traction. Even if the weight of the sand doesn't help, you will have sand to spread under the tires when the car is stuck.

Being stuck in mud is worse than being stuck in either ice or snow, because mud clings to the undercarriage of the car until there is no way to get any traction. Spinning the wheels only drives them deeper. When stuck in the mud, use the same methods as getting out of snow or ice. If these methods don't work, call a tow truck.

Spinning the wheels in sand only drives them down deeper. The undercarriage is hung up once the car is sunk to axle level. At this point, a tow truck will be needed. If the car is not up to the hubs in the sand, try letting a little bit of air out of the tires to help them spread out over the sand instead of sinking down into it.

Odds are that if the vehicle stalled after misjudging the depth of a water crossing, it's already too late. If any water has entered the intake, the worst thing you can do is try and restart the car. Serious engine damage can occur if it hasn't already. Even if the water level is lower than the intake, water can still be sucked back in through the exhaust. Call a tow truck.

It's best not to enter flooded areas, but if you must, maintain a slow, steady pace to avoid creating a huge wake that can come through the grille and up over the radiator into the intake. A steady consistent flow of exhaust will also keep water from entering the tailpipe. Keep going until the vehicle is entirely out of the water.


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