What to do if you run onto the soft shoulder on a rural backroad

Running onto the soft shoulder can put a dent in your day

The soft shoulder at the side of your average back road catches a lot of people out, and potentially turns a simple error into a massive head-on collision or rollover at highway speeds. A driver loses concentration on the highway, and runs the two left-hand wheels onto the soft shoulder. The car feels light, starts to drift left. The driver panics, often over-correcting. A few seconds later … tragedy.

That tragedy can take a few different forms – you might slide further left and hit a hard object such as a tree or bridge abutment. Or you might slide down a steeper embankment and roll over. Or, you might panic, steer hard right, then the steering might bite into the bitumen of the left lane ... and the next thing you know you’re on the wrong side of the road having a head-on.

None of these situations is palatable. Here’s what you should do:

  1. Don’t get into this situation. Concentrate. If you’re finding it hard to concentrate, you’re a hazard to yourself and those around you. Pull over and take a break, because you might not get a second chance.
  2. Drive with both hands on the wheel, at nine and three o’clock. Corrective action is much easier if you are upright, balanced and able to bring both hands into play.
  3. You did check your tyre pressures, didn’t you? Vehicle stability is directly related to running correctly inflated tyres.
  4. First, corrective tip: don’t panic. Don’t panic steer or panic brake. Assess your situation. Not optional: Ease off the throttle and look down the road where you want the car to go. (Looking in the right place greatly increases your chance of steering there.)
  5. If it is safe to do so (if there is physical space) allow the vehicle to slow down of its own accord with the left wheels in the rough and the right wheels on the bitumen. Getting back onto the bitumen is far safer at lower speeds because the risk of secondary events like skids, slides, head-ons and rollovers is lower.
  6. When your speed is significantly lower, steer gently right, back onto the bitumen. The keyword is ‘gently’. You want to re-join the bitumen very gently indeed. Wait for a spot where the bitumen and the shoulder are pretty much at the same level (often the shoulder is unevenly eroded; you don’t want to ask the left tyres to climb a step.) Do not wind on excessive steering lock because if you do that, and the front left wheel climbs onto the bitumen like that, the car will steer dramatically to the right as a result. This is what causes the secondary skids, rollovers and head-on crashes that flow from extricating yourself from this situation badly.
  7. Keep looking down the road, where you want the car to go, as the left wheels re-engage the bitumen. Do not look at things you might hit. Look instead at your intended travel path. Your hands will automatically steer you into the clear. As the car gets back on the sealed surface, you can unwind the steering and continue driving.
  8. If it all does go horribly wrong, and you lose control of the vehicle, brake hard. Do everything you can to lower the potential impact speed, because survivability increases dramatically with even a small decrease in speed.
  9. Critically self-assess your own performance, after the event. (Provided of course there is an afterwards...) What did you do wrong? What could you have done better? Even more important, what mistakes did you make that caused the incident in the first place, and how can you change your behaviour to reduce the possibility of it happening again? Kick yourself in the backside mentally if it seems appropriate, as it almost certainly does in these situations.
  10. This process is a lot safer in a car with Electronic Stability Control (ESC). That’s a box you really should tick on every car you own from now on.