Safe Driving: How to Back Out of a Kill Zone

Tips on backing a car out of kill zones and other dangerous situations

Backing up fast is hard and, if not done correctly, dangerous. Cars are designed to go forward, not backward. Automobile suspensions possess a quality known as caster, the force that gives the car stability going forward and helps to straighten out the front wheels after turning a corner. Unfortunately, this same force destabilizes the car in reverse, and the tires won't straighten themselves out after turns.

Once you loosen your grip, the steering wheel stays in its last position. There is nothing you can do about caster. You need to understand that it's there, live with it and learn to control it.

So, before you find yourself in a dangerous place needing to leave very fast, practice backing up, paying attention to the following tips.

1. Disarm the governor. Some European vehicles have a device called a governor that limits reverse speed. Find out if you have one before you're in the stuff. As a test, put the vehicle in reverse and accelerate; if the engine misfires at around 10 mph, it's got a governor. Don't use this vehicle in a high-risk zone.

2. Tape the steering wheel. With the front wheels pointed straight, put a piece of tape on the top of the steering wheel. When it's time to back up, put your hand on the tape and lock your arm. The tape will provide a reference point for straight if you start to lose control. (Nascar drivers do this.)

3. Practice throwing blind. Take time to practice moving the gear lever from drive to reverse and reverse to drive without looking. It may seem trivial, but not having to look buys you precious time and helps you avoid accidentally shifting into park, neutral or a low gear.

It may seem trivial, but not having to look buys you precious time.

4. Practice with heavy loads. Why? Because vehicles in high-risk zones are often heavily loaded in the back or laden with armor, which makes them less stable when backing up.

Once you're in the stuff and you need to back up out of a high-risk zone, use the following techniques.

1. Just go. Put as much distance between you and the kill zone as possible by backing up straight as fast as you can and as far as you can. Backing up at 30 mph creates 45 feet of distance between you and the enemy every second. Three seconds takes you 135 feet away from the problem. But if you contemplate your navel for 1.5 seconds, you have given up about 68 feet of space. Even if there is an opportunity to turn in a short distance, don't. Turning slows you down and exposes your broadside.

2. Slow down for obstacles. Eventually, something will be in your way, and you must slow down for it. Because of caster, it doesn't take much to flip a vehicle moving in reverse. (Unfortunately, I speak from experience.) A vehicle that can drive around an obstacle at 60 mph going forward will lose control at 20 mph in reverse.

3. Left is best. When you have to turn, turn to the left, or driver's side, if you can. Turning to the right, the passenger side is more difficult spatially. If you must turn right, use your side mirrors to guide you. But remember, the increased energy pushing on the vehicle is double the increase in speed during a turn. Accelerating from 20 mph to 25 mph means 50 percent more energy pushing on the vehicle.

4. Modify your three-point turn. The police version of the three-point turn won't work in a high-risk environment because it requires the driver to drive forward—toward the kill zone—then back up. Instead, follow the above diagram on turning your car 180 degrees.##

Tony Scotti is the author of Professional Driving Techniques: The Essential Guide to Operating a Motor Vehicle with Confidence and Skill

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