Q&A - What Should a Passenger Do?

Q&A ImageMy question is what should a person do if they are the passenger in the front seat of a vehicle and the driver has a heart attack, becomes unconscious or for some reason loses control of the vehicle?



My first thought was using your left hand to steer and if you are lucky enough to be able to reach the parking brake, use it carefully to stop. If not, maybe you could put your left foot over and use the brake. Difficult as it may be, you may only have seconds to intervene and panic would not be your ally.

That said, I have asked an expert to supply a more detailed answer later today.

Taking Control

This 'Passenger' (I'm assuming that's what they are) has submitted a very difficult question, that has no simple answer.

I have been a licensed Driving Instructor in BC for about 27 years, and worked for ICBC as a Driver Examiner for 2 years during this time.  My experience has also included working as a TAO (Training Assessment Officer) both for Driving Instructor Applicants and Class 4 Driving License Applicants; additionally, I have conducted Driver Evaluations for a number of organizations and companies, as well as working with Occupational Therapists and their clients to determine both abilities and training requirements for individuals who have suffered physical and/or mental traumas, in order to determine their potential/requirement for rehabilitation in order to regain their driving privileges.

Taking control of a person or situation is generally a learned behaviour, augmented by training and experience.  It's an important skill for a parent or instructor when they teach a teenager how to drive.  It's an absolute necessity for a DE when he/she takes an applicant (who could be sixteen or sixty) out for a Road Test, and from the outset this degree of control is established to ensure that when behind the wheel, they will do their best to act on the directions of the DE.

Even so, about 50% of the Class 7 Applicants fail (sometimes through accumulated errors, but often enough because the DE has to take verbal control; or, if push comes to shove - so to speak - physical control, the last resort to prevent a collision with something or someone else).

What does physical control entail?  Depends on the options available.  In a Driver Training vehicle, there will be, at minimum, a brake pedal for the person in the right front seat - as well as a rear-view mirror, so that they can see what's coming up behind.  No steering wheel on their side though, those have been disallowed during examinations.  There might be a gas pedal.  At one time, it used to be mandatory to have an engine kill switch in reach, but this was eliminated more than twenty years back, when it was reallized that all modern vehicles have the ignition key/switch in reach of the right front passenger anyway.

In a regular automobile, the only physical control devices for the person in the right front seat are what's in reach.  The ignition key and/or engine start/stop button, almost certainly.  Parking Brake - maybe, if it's set into the console within reach.  Steering wheel should be reachable with their left hand, as Tim points out.  Driver's side brake and gas pedal?  Not likely if there's a console, and even without it there's a person in the way, who may or may not be unconscious, but in the case of a seizure might have their right foot immovably jammed on the gas pedal.

So even as a Driver Examiner commencing a Road Test with a fresh faced, healthy sixteen-year-old will have subtly established authoratative control and communication before commencement of their drive will also have noted to themselves as they got in the car what their physical control options might be if things go wrong, the first thing the 'Passenger' needs to figure out is what their options would be in a worst case scenario.

Let's think about these.  Directing the path of travel of the vehicle from the right hand side, using the steering wheel in front of the driver?  Ever tried this?  How about stopping the vehicle, using the parking brake (assuming it's in reach)?  Ever tried this?  It's easy enough to experiment by yourself when driving from the left (hint: be certain you keep the release button pushed in, and that you've checked behind you).  I'll bet you will never again  term that almost useless device an 'Emergency' brake again.  And meanwhile, if we're contemplating a scenario where the driver is unconscious, and quite possibly frozen on the gas pedal, then what's it like to control a vehicle with no power steering or (after one or two applications at most) no power brakes due to suddenly turning off the ignition key?  Every driver should know how this feels, and what's needed to control the vehicle, but few do even though any vehicle can have a fuel or ignition failure.  And if you can't calmly handle this from behind the wheel in a controlled experiment, then you're not at all likely to be able to do so from the passenger side in the best of circumstances.

As Tim points out so succinctly, 'panic would not be your ally'.  Which is why I'm going over all these options and details so laboriously.  When a person panics, they're worse than useless, incapable of coherent action.  People panic because intellectually, they simply don't know what else to do.  That's why training is so important - for Driver Examiners, for Paramedics, for Firemen - and for Police Officers, perhaps more than anyone; you don't want somebody behind the wheel of a high power cruiser, with a gun on their hip, losing control of any situation, or of themselves; I'll bet that Tim as a cop went through training involving a zillion different tense scenarios to ensure that when confronted with a potentially overwhelming situation he would have built-in trained reflexes and behaviours to ensure his ability to respond rationally without panicking. 

So my first question for the 'Passenger' would be - are you sure you're ready for this?  Physically, and mentally, capable of taking over the situation?  Do you actually have the training, the experience, the capacity to ensure that you can overcome the possible consequences if the driver does become unconscious, or have a seizure?  Sure, the goal (which is simply to get the vehicle stopped as soon as possible, preferably out of the way of traffic, and absolutely without hitting anything or anyone) is simple enough.  But do you really think you have what it takes to do it?

And the reason I ask this is simple.  Are you ready to face the consequences, should this theoretical driver (who I'm guessing you know quite well, and may well be related to) have a heart attack, or seizure, or become unconscious?

Sure, it might turn out the only damage done is that the car ends up in the ditch and you both have a big laugh about it afterwards.  But it could also turn out that you're unable to overcome the situation, and the vehicle is inadvertently propelled into a bunch of school children waiting at a bus stop, and suddenly everybody's world is turned upside down and irrevocably shattered by the blood and the broken bones and the horror.  And if that's the consequence of having a driver behind the wheel who should have been reported to their physician, or RoadSafety BC aka Office of the Superintendent as being a medical risk, then you don't have any choice, really.  And it isn't trying to learn how to try and take over if they suddenly can't control the vehicle any more due to a foreseable heart attack - your responsibility is to do your utmost to prevent the circumstance arising in the first place.

Unconscious at the wheet: It happened to us

I was very interested to read the entries on this subject.  You see, I am a 77 year old woman, and my 85 year old husband had a seizure while driving 75 miles per hour on the interstate near our home.  It was truly the most frightening thing to ever happen to me. I heard him made an odd noise and his lips and eyes were trembling, then nothing.  The car (a Ford Explorer) began to veer to the right. 

Here is what I did:  I pulled myself over as far to the left as I could and grabbed the wheel with my right hand.  It was very awkward because the seat belt only let me pull so far, and I could see I could not sustain control long.  I unfastened my seat belt to give me more flexibility and ability to move my body further to the left.  Cars were actually passing us.  My first thought was to keep that car in the lane and not do anything that might make it jerk or leave the lane causing a  collision with another car on the road.  I wished I knew where his emergency light button was located because I would have pushed it, for sure.  But that was no time to look around.  Then I decided my only safe choice given that I didn't know the consequences of  throwing it out of gear, etc., was to get his foot off the gas.  The trouble is, in order to reach down far enough on his leg to jerk it, my head dipped down and I did not have sight of the road, and it was also very difficult to keep the car steady.  Nevertheless, I did it anyway, and it took 3 or 4 tries before it worked, much to my relief.  Meanwhile, I was down the road about 5 miles, and 3 or 4 minutes had elapsed - 3 or 4 very long minutes.  When we slowed down enough, I pulled over but the car was still just moving.  He had just begun to come out of  his seizure, and I asked if he could brake.  He could not move yet.  So, I threw it in park, it made a loud noise, but came to a stop. Obviously neutral would have been a better choice, but it did not hurt the car.  I then tried to call 911, but we were at a dead zone on the road, no reception.  I tried to flag down a car without success.  So I checked to see if he thought he could stand up.  He thought so.  I helped him out of the driver's seat and around the car to the passenge seat, got in, turned around at the next exit and drove back about 25 miles to the nearest hospital.  He was in the hospital 3 days and is doing fine (and not driving!). 

I know there are any number of  things that could have happened differently that would have been out of my control, and the outcome would have been very bad.  We are very greatful to be alive. 


Well done!

Thanks for posting, and sharing that experience.

You handled a fraught situation with aplomb; 'grace under pressure' is the term that comes to mind. I take my hat off to you.

(Incidentally, jamming it into Park was almost certainly the right choice; it's tough on the pawl in the transmission, but getting the vehicle under control as quickly as possible was of paramount importance.)


Thank you.  It has been very

Thank you.  It has been very helpful to me to talk about it, and now to write it down.  I was pretty shaky for a couple of days afterward.

why not turn off the

why not turn off the ignition?

Totally depends

On the situation & location. If you are on a long flat straight stretch of road that could be an option as you don't need much steering to keep the vehicle on the road. But if your on a windy road that would be the worst thing to do, as now you just lost your power steering and your power brakes should you be able to reach the pedal.

This is a very complex situation that depends on a vast amount possibilities like if there is a center console, or a bench seat for example, a gear shift or a knob, the road conditions & location,ect.

It also is one thing that is never thought of by most drivers until it happens, which by then is too late,I believe this should be part of a road test and training to all drivers so all the different scenarios can be at least brought up and thought about and discussed, so if it does ever happen at least you won't be caught with no education what so ever. It just might help one not panic so they can react and have some clue of what NOT to do.

Part of what blows my mind that ANY licensed driver with the same class of license can teach another driver to drive. Many times it's a Family member of friend that never thought of this exact situation arising, even though it may be fairly rare it does & can occur, and being prepared may be the only difference between stopping safely and a tragedy occurring.

Can You Do It?

Not sure that you can shut off the ignition if the vehicle is not in park....

Yes you can!

You can turn the ignition off any time, in any gear. But you won't be able to remove the key unless it's in Park. That's a safety feature, so that if a curious kid sitting beside the driver was to try and grab those keys hanging off the side of the steering column, they won't be able to succeed (which would leave the driver with his steering locked).

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