Tips for handling driving emergencies

Sometimes, no matter how carefully you drive, you may find yourself in an emergency situation. Find out how to handle emergencies if they develop.


Skids don’t happen without reason. They're usually caused by:

  • heavy acceleration
  • heavy braking
  • changing direction suddenly
  • driving too fast on wet or unsealed roads.

Different kinds of skids require you to take different corrective action. You should know what to do if your car goes into a skid.

Note: the following guidelines relate only to vehicles with conventional brakes and not vehicles with ABS brakes. If your vehicle has ABS brakes, never pump the brakes in an emergency. Keep the pedal pressed down hard and steer out of trouble.

4-wheel skid

In a 4-wheel skid, all 4 wheels lock under heavy braking.

You should:

  • pump your brakes gently so the wheels turn and grip the road again.
An aerial view of a blue car with the wheels highlighted. All four wheels are locked in a straight position.

4-wheel skid

Front-wheel skid - understeer

In a front-wheel skid, the vehicle goes in a straight line instead of following the direction your front wheels are turned in.

In this kind of skid you shouldn’t brake.

You should:

  • push in the clutch – if driving a manual vehicle
  • take your foot off the accelerator
  • turn the steering wheel in the direction that the vehicle is heading
  • once you’ve regained control, let the clutch out.
An aerial view of a blue car with the front wheel turned to the right. An arrow points ahead of the car to show it's moving straight ahead, instead of following the direction of the front wheels.

Front-wheel skid

Rear-wheel skid - oversteer

In a rear-wheel skid, the rear of the vehicle swings out.

In this kind of skid you shouldn’t brake.

You should:

  • push in the clutch – if driving a manual vehicle
  • take your foot off the accelerator
  • turn the steering wheel in the direction that the rear wheels are sliding
  • once you’ve regained control, let the clutch out.
An aerial view of a blue car with the front wheels turned to the right. An arrow pointing from the rear wheels shows the rear of the car is swinging out to the right.

Rear-wheel skid

Tyre blowouts

Tyre blowouts can be dangerous, especially if you're driving fast, because they can cause your vehicle to lose control.

A front-tyre blowout usually causes the vehicle to pull towards the side with the blowout. A rear-tyre blowout usually causes the vehicle to sway from side-to-side.

You can try to avoid having a blowout by checking your tyres regularly. It’s important to have correct tyre pressure. If a tyre has a large cut or bulge, or is very worn, it needs to be replaced.

If you do have a blowout while driving, you should:

  • grip the steering wheel tightly
  • ease off the accelerator
  • try to keep the vehicle on its path
  • signal and steer to the side of the road once you’ve reduced speed.

Engine failure

If your engine cuts out suddenly while driving, you must try to get the vehicle to the side of the road as quickly and safely as possible.

You should:

  • signal and steer towards the side of the road
  • put the vehicle into neutral gear – this will help you roll further
  • put your hazard lights on once you’ve stopped.

If your vehicle has power steering, it'll be difficult to steer once the engine is dead. Try not to be alarmed by the reduced control. Grip the wheel tightly and steer as best as you can.

Jammed accelerator

An instinctive response of many drivers to a jammed accelerator is to turn the engine off. This isn’t a good idea, particularly if your vehicle has power steering and braking, as this will make it much harder to steer and the brakes will be less effective.

You should:

  • try to lift the accelerator up with your toes
  • leave the vehicle in gear
  • brake – the brakes will be strong enough to stop the vehicle, even with the engine going
  • keep steering and look for a spot where you can safely pull off the road.

Shattered windscreen

Shattered windscreens are becoming less common these days because modern vehicles are fitted with laminated windscreens, which crack but don’t shatter. Stone chips can turn into cracks which weaken the screen. Always repair chips before they turn into cracks. 

If you’re driving an older model vehicle and your windscreen shatters, you should:

  • steer by looking through the side window if you can’t see through the shattered windscreen. If you’ve been concentrating on the road ahead by using the 2-second rule you should have a good mental picture of the road, which will help you steer
  • avoid pushing a hole in the shattered glass unless absolutely necessary. You might cut your hand and pieces of broken glass will be blown into your eyes
  • pull over and stop as soon as possible
  • once you've stopped, punch out the shattered glass using a jack or another tool. If no tools are available, wrap your hand in thick cloth, such as a jersey or towel, and carefully knock out the glass
  • drive slowly to the nearest windscreen repairer.

Vehicle fire

If you think your vehicle is on fire, you'll need to act immediately. You should:

  • signal and pull over to the side of the road
  • get yourself and any passengers out of the vehicle as quickly as possible
  • keep everyone clear of the vehicle and try to warn oncoming traffic
  • phone the fire service.

Don’t try to put out the fire yourself, as you could inhale toxic fumes and there's also a danger the vehicle could explode.


In a severe earthquake driving can be very difficult because the road may be shaking or moving up and down beneath you.

If you think an earthquake is happening while you’re driving, you should:

  • pull over and stop
  • stay inside your vehicle until the shaking stops. Your vehicle will provide you with some protection against falling objects.

After the earthquake:

  • if power lines have fallen onto your vehicle, stay inside it until help arrives
  • if you continue driving after the earthquake, be on the lookout for slips or other road damage and obstacles
  • turn on your radio and listen for news about possible road closures and other information.

Submerged vehicle

Aotearoa has a high number of coastal and riverside roads and sometimes vehicles can end up underwater.

Knowing what to do if you’re ever in this situation can mean the difference between life and death.

  • If possible, get out of the vehicle while it’s still afloat. It'll normally sink within minutes.
  • Escape by winding down the window. The weight of water against the doors will usually make them too hard to open.
  • Once submerged, water will gradually seep into the vehicle. Escape through the windows. If this isn’t possible, wait until the vehicle is filled almost to head height with water. The doors will be easier to open then as the pressure inside the vehicle will be almost the same as it is outside.
  •  Before leaving the vehicle, turn the lights on so rescuers can find it more easily.
  • Form a human chain with any other passengers as you leave the vehicle. This will make sure you all stay together.

Bonnet flying up

You can try to avoid having your bonnet fly up by:

  • remembering to re-fasten your vehicle’s bonnet securely whenever you open it
  • pulling over to the side of the road immediately if you notice the bonnet flexing or coming loose while you are driving.

If the bonnet flies up while you're driving you should:

  • steer by looking through the gap under the hinge of the bonnet or out the side window
  • brake smoothly, indicate and move over to the left-hand side of the road.

Brake failure

If your vehicle’s brakes fail, it'll be an alarming experience.

You can try to avoid this happening by checking your brakes regularly. Always replace worn brake pads immediately and top up the brake fluid levels whenever necessary.

If your brakes do fail while driving:

  • change to a lower gear – automatic vehicles included – to help slow the vehicle down
  • pump the brakes hard and quickly to make use of any capacity still left in the hydraulic brake system
  • gradually pull up on the handbrake – don’t pull too hard or you may cause the rear wheels to lock
  • warn other road users by switching on your headlights and hazard lights and sounding your horn
  • look for an escape route, such as a wide shoulder of the road, a flat field or an uphill road
  • if you're travelling downhill and the vehicle is starting to lose control, try to scrape against something on the side of the road, such as a safety rail, a bank or the kerb.

Headlight failure

It’s uncommon for both headlights to fail while you're driving, but it can happen.

If your headlights do fail while you’re driving, you should:

  • slow down
  • move off the road gradually and stop somewhere safe
  • turn your hazard lights on.

Avoiding a head-on crash

A head-on crash is probably the most dangerous type of crash you can be involved in. This is because when 2 vehicles collide head-on, the force of the impact can be twice as much as  when a vehicle hits a non-moving object.

If you find yourself heading towards a head-on crash, there are some things you can do to try to avoid the crash or limit its damage:

  • Brake hard. Every kilometre of speed that you slow down by will lessen the impact of a crash if it happens.
  • Flash your headlights and blow your horn to attract the attention of the other driver.
  • Look for an escape route to your left, even if it means driving off the road. A roll-over crash is likely to be less dangerous than a head-on crash.
  • Don’t swerve to your right. The other driver is most likely to respond by swerving to their left and you would be likely to crash into each other.