Advice for Young Drivers on Emergency Stopping


My son is learning to drive, and it strikes me that learning how to stop in an emergency is not part of the licensing process.

I want him to learn how to perform an emergency stop - but I don’t how to do one myself. (Nobody ever showed me.)

So: How do you stop in an emergency? - Jan


Jan, I think you’ve got this concern in common with 99 per cent of parents whose kids are approaching the licensing age. It is crazy that emergency stopping is generally not taught - of even discussed - during the licensing process. You'd be miffed if Qantas did this in relation to emergency training for its pilots.

Another way to look at driving is that pulling out from the kerb and driving at speed is optional (nobody has a gun at your head). However, stopping is mandatory. And it's ridiculous to expect it always to unfold like a fair-weather textbook. Bad things happen from time to time: other vehicles fail to give way, pedestrians step out, and livestock or other animals appear without warning in the middle of the road ahead.

It is crazy that we don't teach kids how to stop when they really need to - when the chips are down, and it's life and death, potentially. End of school exams are just around the corner, and a bunch of young drivers are about to head out on their first big solo (or with friends) highway adventure - confrontingly enough, if you're a parent. With that in mind, I've created an infographic on how to stop in an emergency (at right - click to enlarge). 

The two basic things to consider are the vehicle and the driver, but let’s break this problem down (no pun intended) into three parts:

Part one - the car

If the budget allows, get your son into a car with all the modern brake-enhancing technology - ABS, electronic brake-force distribution, stability control and emergency brake assist. These things really have enhanced the physical stopping potential of cars, and putting a young kid in a car with this technology will make a difference. (These cars will also be safer if he ultimately crashes - more likely to offer five-star crashworthiness protection.)

Engineers have done a great job slashing stopping distance with advanced braking technology in the past 15 years.

One of the great tragedies for our youngest - and most at-risk - drivers is that they generally drive the least safe cars available.

Part two - service and maintenance

Use premium brand tyres, not cheapies, and teach your son to check the pressures every two weeks, because nothing kills brake performance faster than just a little under-inflation.

Get the car serviced regularly and make sure the condition of the brakes is checked every time.

Make sure your son knows that checking the tyre pressures regularly is a non-negotiable part of driving responsibly.

Part three - his performance as a driver

It’s overly simplistic to rely on parts one and two above. Technology won't save you, even though, in the critical part of an emergency stop, all you need to do in a modern car is belt the brake pedal as hard as possible, as early as possible.

However, what you do ‘upstream’ of that critical situation is even more important.


A couple of years ago I was driving a test car. It was dusk. I was approaching a traffic light-controlled crossing. And in the distance on the crossing I saw some movement on the median strip - looked like a couple of pedestrians standing there, crossing against the light. It just looked iffy, so I lifted off the gas and I moved my foot over and covered the brake pedal. And then a little kid on a bike just rode out, straight in front of me. It was, like, really close. There was nowhere to swerve. So I just stomped on the brake pedal - really nailed it. Hard as I could. As soon as you’ve done that’ it’s all just physics - grip, acceleration, distance, time. Science.

As soon as the scenery stops moving, the kid - he’s about eight years old - is about a metre away from the nose of the car. Three feet. He’s like the rabbit in the headlights. Luckiest kid on earth, right at that moment. And yeah, the car had all the cool technology, but the thing that really saved the kid from having the last day of his life right then - and me from having the worst day of mine - was getting off the gas and covering the brake.

I was doing about 60 kilometres per hour - call it 35, in miles per hour. That’s about 17 metres a second. If I bought myself one second by moving my foot across pre-emptively, I also slashed 17 metres from my stopping distance. If I’d still been on the gas when I needed to brake, I would have hit the kid at pretty much at full speed, nailed him and stopped four car lengths later. It’s only 17 metres difference, but it might as well have been in a different universe. Life and death in the big physics lab we call ‘driving’.


So the thing your son needs to know - and everyone else - is that the things you do ‘upstream’ of critical braking incidents make a massive difference to the potential outcome in a crisis. Obviously, the critical part of an emergency stopping manoeuvre is the wrong time to start thinking about whether or not you checked the tyre pressures, or whether it really was a hot idea to put cheap Chinese knock-off tyres on your car.

You can prevent a lot of emergency stopping incidents simply by looking further down the road, and by dropping back from the car in front. Being able to see more of the streetscape in front of you buys you more time to assess risk. (Distance is time, when you are moving.) Seeing a risky situation 50 metres earlier gives you around three more seconds to react, at 60km/h - making a huge difference to the reaction required, and also to the probable outcome.

And, lastly, any time something looks even half dodgy, get off the gas and cover the brake. Get ready to brake. Manage risk. This makes more difference than anything else you can ever do to stop quicker. There’s nothing else on the shelf that will buy you 17 metres in a crisis like the one I narrowly avoided in the example above. If you don’t drive a car thinking ‘what if…’ then you’re only playing the game with half a deck. That kid went home to his parents because of risk management more than any other single factor.