Today: What to Do When the Driver Loses Consciousness

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Nov 01, 2011

Dear Tom and Ray:

My husband was driving our Yukon on the highway (cruise control set on 70) when he passed out. He was in the left-hand lane of four lanes, so I reached over and turned off the ignition and steered to the left shoulder, and then to the grassy median. (I never realized how far a car can travel without the motor on!)

I finally drove into a large road sign that dipped down and then back up, causing the car to finally stop. Then I took my seat belt off and called 911. Did I mention that I was screaming at my husband the whole time? (I thought he was dying.) My question for you: Was there anything else I could have or should have done? Needless to say, I will never forget this experience. Thanks for all the great info and entertainment you give to all of us "non-pro drivers"!

-- Jimmie Jo

RAY: Well, the first thing you should do is make sure your husband never listens to our radio show again. He obviously has a hard time staying awake as it is.

TOM: You did very well under the circumstances, Jimmie Jo. So congratulations for keeping your wits about you and getting the vehicle to a safe stop. Great job.

RAY: For next time (which we hope there isn't), we'll give you a few better alternatives.

TOM: Turning off the engine isn't our first choice -- either for a medical emergency like this or for unintended acceleration. When you turn off the engine, you lose your power brakes and power steering. That can make it harder to control the car -- especially from the passenger seat.

RAY: So, in a case where you're on a highway and you have plenty of room to stop, you should reach over and shift the transmission into Neutral. That'll allow the car to eventually roll to a stop, but will allow you to steer easily.

TOM: And you can stay on the shoulder (or in your lane if you have to) until you're almost stopped, and then pull off and put the car in park.

RAY: If you need to slow the car more quickly, there are several other options. If the car has a hand brake between the seats, use that first. If it doesn't, depending upon how dexterous you are, you can try to reach your left foot into the driver's wheel well and apply the brake.

TOM: And if neither of those is an option, you can slam the transmission into the lowest gear, and that'll slow the car more quickly than if you were just coasting in neutral.

RAY: But in a case like yours, where you have to room to coast, just put the vehicle in neutral and steer the car until it coasts to a stop. Then put it in park, and then turn off the engine.

TOM: We trust that by now your husband has recovered, and that you've figured out what caused him to lose consciousness.

RAY: If not, you'll want to take away the keys until you're sure he can reliably remain conscious. He was lucky to have a quick-thinking wife by his side this time, and lucky to be on an open stretch of highway. But driving while unconscious is not something we recommend he try again. Good luck to you guys, Jimmie Jo.

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