Crash Avoidance: Can aviation teach us how to swerve better?

Quick quiz: you’re in the middle of an emergency stop. It's clear there’s insufficient room to stop. You are either going to swerve or crash. What do you do?


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I've previously discussed emergency braking. The summary is that you identify the threat early by looking as far down the road ahead as possible. As soon as something looks iffy, you get off the gas. That saves you some time because you’re starting to slow down. Then you move your foot across and put it above the brake pedal. That’s also going to buy you some additional time. Finally, as soon as it becomes obvious that this is a critical situation and you need to stop, you smash the brake pedal as hard as you can. You leave it that way until the scenery stops, assuming you’re in a modern car with all of the latest braking technology.

Let’s put ourselves in that position. But, unfortunately, the real world often militates against you. What happens if there is just not enough room for the best outcome?

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Aviation and Emergency Stops

I think we can learn a hell of a lot from commercial aviation because they actually practice for emergencies (unlike driving). Pilots spend a lot of time in the simulator doing all sorts of emergency procedures.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could do that a little bit, just as drivers?

To give you one example, every time you get on a commercial jet and you fly between countries and/or cities, the pilots calculate a range of speeds - critical speeds for the takeoff. The first one is, un-creatively, called V1, and that basically defines the maximum speed at which the take-off can be aborted during the ground roll.

Let’s put ourselves in the position of the pilots. (The two blokes up the pointy end who you don’t think about all that often, except if there’s an emergency.) One of them is flying the aircraft. The other one is spotting the speeds. He calls out V1 when you get to that critical speed. After V1 the pilot removes his hands from the throttle because it’s not going to help if his hand is there, because if there is a problem above V1 while flying out of that runway, throttling back will not help. You're flying out of there.

If it’s below V1, hand on the throttle makes really good sense, right? You back off and abort. One of the first emergency procedures if you should have, for example, engine failure below V1, is minimise the throttle input. Take the thrust away. That’s what you’ve got to do if you want to abort the takeoff.

Above V1 you’re going to fly out of there and they split the responsibilities, which makes absolute sense. What we do as drivers is we practice for our emergencies only during actual emergencies.

It is absolutely crazy to drive like this in my view.

Read more about V1 at BAA Training >>

To Swerve or Stop?

What are you going to do if the alternatives are hit the obstacle or attempt to swerve? This is predicated on: what are the risks involved with swerving. What’s the moral and ethical dimension to hitting the obstacle? It could be a person, a kid standing in the middle of the road, or a car full of people inconveniently just in front of you for whatever reason.

That's ethically bad.

If it’s a kangaroo for example, it may be better to crash because a relatively low speed crash into a kangaroo is better than swerving into a bad location, rolling down an embankment, and ending up parked on the roof with everybody in the car dead. (That second option is only a good result for Skippy. It’s not much of a result for the people in your car if you make the wrong call here.)

Obviously, a different set of ethical considerations pertain if it’s a kid sitting in front of you in the middle of the road. I wouldn’t want to live with making the choice to hit the kid instead of swerving. Although there are situations in which that might be morally defensible. In any case, I’d suggest that the best thing to do here if you are going to swerve, is a couple of things:

  1. Brake early, and hard
  2. Keep your foot firmly on the brake pedal because the lower the speed the better the manoeuvring capability of the car. Delay manoeuvring until the last possible moment. It's less likely you’re going to throw it all away inconveniently into the weeds, and more likely that you are going to recover control at the other end of the swerve.

The Swerving Equation

Let’s not forget that there are really three parts to the swerving equation.

  1. There’s the swerve itself
  2. There’s avoiding the obstacle (the two parts a lot of people concentrate on) and...
  3. ...recovering control at the other end.

You’ve got to do all three of them to get full marks. Swerving is the kind of thing where 100 per cent is the only viable outcome.

Break early and hard. Minimise the speed to maximise your manoeuvring capability during the swerve.

Then keep looking where you want the car to go. Look at the road that you want to re-join at the end of this process. That’s critical. Target fixation – very bad indeed. Do not look at the tree you want to miss (if you do, you'll probably hit it.)

Botching the Swerve

I also want to talk to you about what you should do if you botch the swerve. If you lose control or it’s not looking too flash in the whole 'phase three/recovering control' part of swerving. (Not optional.)

If that’s not looking very flash, keep braking because whenever you’re braking, you’re speed is reducing and the likelihood of recovering control increases.

The final thing is: keep looking where you want that car to go. No matter how hopeless it seems. 

Do this because if the speed does reduce and you regain control, it’s always fantastic to be situationally aware and to be steering in the direction you want to go. That can really help - no matter how hopeless it might seem in the moment.

Back to Aviation…

Harking back to the aviation thing, about 25 years ago when I was only getting out of the blocks as a journalist, one of my most uplifting (literally) assignments was to go and have an orientation flight, in an Australian Army Black Hawk helicopter.

I flew to Queensland to the training base at Oakey and they took me for this insane orientation flight in the Black Hawk. Really low in mountainous terrain, close to the trees, at insane angles - it was basically a simulated troop insertion mission. We landed on these pinnacles in the mountains and did crazy stuff in a helicopter that you would simply never do if you fly in a civilian helicopter.

The captain was a guy named Peter Tickner. He was the Chief Flying Instructor of the Army Aviation Black Hawk training squadron. A very brave man because he let me hang on to the controls, albeit briefly.

The other reason I’d rate Peter Tickner as a brave guy is very far from flippant. Together with five other serving personnel in the Australian Army, he was called upon to pull off this very daring civilian rescue on the 20th May 1994 - several years after he survived handing me the controls.

In failing light and atrocious conditions, 300 nautical miles off the cost of QLD, they flew in an uncertain fuel state in a Black Hawk with those external fuel pods, to rescue this crew. There were seven survivors on a stricken yacht. There were six blokes on the Black Hawk. There was Peter Tickner and his co-pilot, two medics and two load masters.

They found their way to the stricken craft. There was a life raft in the water, and the conditions were atrocious. The swell was five metres or so and you can imagine what it’s like trying to hover a helicopter in a five-metre swell and a crew member into the water to rescue these people.

It took a long time. The swell is up and down, there are no reference points that are stable anywhere. Very difficult to hover a helicopter in that situation. Very difficult to manage the winching of these crew members from the yacht who were all in a state of total shock as well, understandably.

This rescue is testament to the professionalism and calculated risk taking of those six very brave men.

Managing Risk

I guess the point I’m making here is you can’t do things like that unless you’re highly trained, and unless you very carefully assess the conditions around you. More than anything else, they managed the risk. When I was aboard the Black Hawk on my so-called joy flight, 25 years ago, Peter Tickner explained to me what it's like when you have an engine failure in a helicopter and how you manage a controlled landing in that situation. They call them 'autorotations'.

I've been up in a lot of helicopters since then. You can always tell if a helicopter pilot is on the case of not. I always say to the pilot without warning, “Hey, if the engine quits here, where are we going to land”. If, without hesitation, the pilot goes, “Just down there. See that little clearing? Down low at 10 o'clock? I’ll put her down in there”, you know that he’s on the case and he’s managing the risk.

I think as drivers we could learn a hell of a lot from that kind of attitude.

If you’re driving in the country one day and it’s as boring as batshit and you are nodding off mentally. Maybe you should be asking yourself a whole bunch of what if questions. What if I have to swerve here? Which way will I go, left or right? Where is there some safe terrain away from trees and away from other sources of danger? The car might slide into a dangerous position. Should I stop, should I swerve? You can ask yourself all of these what if questions and plan for the driving equivalent of an autorotation.

If that gives you some pause to reconsider the way you sit there in a sort of mentally befuddled state, driving hellishly long distances that we enjoy (if that’s the right word here), in Australia, then I think my work here is done.

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