A perplexing question deserves and perplexing answer.

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jan 01, 1992

Dear Tom and Ray:

I have a perplexing question. Is an automatic transmission more dangerous than a stick shift when a car dies? Is steering more difficult and dangerous?

TOM: Well, Ned, a perplexing question deserves a perplexing answer. And we've got one for you. There are many things to remember when you're in a moving car that stalls. One of them is that the steering WILL get more difficult.

RAY: But it doesn't have anything to do with what kind of transmission you have. It has to do with the loss of power steering.

TOM: The "power" in power steering comes from the engine. So when the engine dies, you suddenly have to turn those wheels all by yourself. And since the wheels have about half the weight of the car on top of them, they are hard to turn! It may not be such a big deal if you're driving a Ford Festiva, but if you're driving something bigger than a riding mower, steering the car can be very, very difficult.

RAY: So you have to be prepared for a tremendous difference in the amount of effort it takes to steer the car. And it gets progressively harder as the car goes slower. So if you have to turn off the road to get to a safe place to stop, don't wait until the last second to do it.

TOM: But the biggest shock when you stall won't come from losing your power steering, it'll come from losing your power brakes. The "power" in power brakes also comes from the engine. And if you think the car is hard to STEER without power assist, wait until you try to STOP it!

RAY: You may get a little bit of left- over boost the first time you step on the pedal, but the second time, it's going to feel like you have no brakes at all. You're going to have to stand on that brake pedal with both feet...and it's STILL going to take you two or three times as long to stop the car. And the larger the car, the harder it is.

TOM: So what should you do when your car stalls and the power brakes go out? If you have room to stop (if you're not within 30 feet of a Tiffany's window display), just stand on the brake with both feet, and bring the car to a stop. But if you need to stop really quickly, there are other steps you can take.

RAY: You can always use your parking brake to supplement the foot brake. In fact, the parking brake used to be called the "emergency brake," until the car company lawyers decided they didn't want to be legally responsible. But in an emergency, the parking brake is still an emergency brake. It's on a completely seperate system, so it will help stop the car, even after the engine stalls.

TOM: The transmission can help you slow down, too. If you have a stick shift, you can downshift. Even if the engine has stalled and won't restart, shifting a manual transmission to a lower gear still provides braking action. And in an emergency, you can even throw an automatic trans?mission into Park. Sure, it'll make a horrific sound and chew up a few pieces of the car, but it will bring you to a very abrupt stop.

RAY: And if worse comes to worse and you know you're going to hit something, try to aim carefully. First of all, try to hit property rather than people. Second, if you have to hit another car, hit one going in the same direction, rather than one coming right at you. And if you have a choice, try to crash into something that's soft. At the risk of alienating the vegetable rights activists, we highly recommend roadside farm stands...aim for the lettuce.

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