Monday, December 15, 2008

What about Crisis Situations in a MINI Cooper

All of this smoothness we emphasized earlier is a good thing when you’re in control of your car and there are no surprises. But what happens when something goes wrong on the road up ahead and you have no choice but to respond in a hurry? Good question. Our discussion of weight transfer will help explain what to do in different types of crisis situations.
Panic Braking and ABS
Let’s talk first about the modern braking system that is standard equipment on your MINI Cooper and nearly every other new car on the road. Your MINI Cooper is equipped with an anti-lock braking system (an ABS system). This system is designed to allow you to hit the brakes hard in a situation where you absolutely, positively, must stop as quickly as possible, but without the problems of the old days where the brakes locked up and the car started to skid.
The system is pretty easy to explain, though the mechanics behind it would be impossible without modern electronics. Say you come around a corner and a child suddenly darts out into the street chasing a ball. You jump on the brakes as hard as you can. As you would expect, one or more of the wheels reaches the point where the contact between the brake pads and the brakes is stronger than the contact between the tire and the road and the wheel stops spinning and starts to skid.
In the old days, your instructor would have told you that you should immediately release and re-apply the brakes, so that the skidding tire could start to turn and go back to its job of helping the car slow down. However, with the new ABS system, the car can do the job better than you do.
As the wheel starts to skid, sensors in the wheels notice that one wheel has stopped while the other wheels are still turning. The sensor passes this information to the brake system computer, which causes it to go into anti-lock mode. At that point, the computer causes the brake cylinders to start to pulse, alternately pushing and releasing the brakes. This pulsing allows the skidding tire to start to spin, doing exactly what you would do, but much more quickly. With the pulsing brakes, the car can come to a straightline stop very effectively, much better than you could manage.
Why are we telling you this right now? We’re going to bet that, unless you’ve already had this situation happen to you, you’ve never actually experienced the operation of an ABS system. If you haven’t, we’ll also bet that the first time that brake pedal starts pulsing on its own, you’re going to panic and let of the brake pedal, so that the system stops working.
We recommend that you try out your ABS system as soon as possible. Find a large parking lot that is empty at some point during the week, or a backcountry road with no traffic. When you’re sure no one is around, hit the brakes hard. You don’t need to be going very fast to get the full effect. Take the car up to about 25 mph and stomp on the brake pedal, then hold your foot down.
Don’t panic when the brake pedal starts kicking back against your foot. What you’re feeling is the pulsing of the brake system, pushing and releasing the brakes for you. While you keep your foot on the brakes, the car will come to a stop. It won’t feel pretty, but it will work better than you could manage on your own; we’ll guarantee that.
The key thing is that, in a crisis stop (we won’t call it a panic stop, because as a very good driver you won’t panic, now that you know what to do) you get your foot on the brakes hard and keep it there until the car comes to a stop.
Panic Braking and Turning
But what happens if the obstacle is right in front of you, or you’re coming around a corner when you have to make the stop? A very good feature of the ABS system is that it will bring you to a smooth stop, while allowing you to continue to turn.
When we mentioned the problem of turning and braking above, we noted that the weight transfer off the steering wheels could cause the car to plow, or skid. However, when the ABS system activates, it helps restore the ability of the wheels to steer the car out of trouble. That is, it will do that as long as you can manage to remember to keep your foot firmly on the brake while you steer around the obstacle.
The first time or two you try this trick, you’ll probably have trouble with it. It is tough to remember to keep your eyes up and looking at where you want the car to go, turning the wheel to follow your eyes, while at the same time the ABS system is pounding back on your foot on the brake pedal. Try to find an opportunity to try this a few times in that vacant parking lot or deserted road to see what it’s like.
As you practice it, and if you have to actually do it in a crisis situation, just keep telling yourself: “Stomp, stay, steer.” Stomp on the brake pedal, stay on the brake pedal, and steer around the problem. Easier said than done, but with a little practice you should be prepared for problems down the road.
Steering Around Problems
Slamming on your brakes may not always be the best solution to a crisis situation. In particular, a variety of different events can occur on the highway that require a different response. You won’t brake, with or without turning; instead you’re going to steer around the problem.
The most typical situation is one where the car in front of you suddenly changes lanes to avoid that old tire casing or deep pothole that you didn’t see until they moved out of the way. Or as you’re driving along, something gets loose from the truck ahead and falls into your lane. Either way, at highway speed you aren’t going to have enough distance to stop before running into the junk.
Instead, what you need to do instead is to rapidly change lanes, most often without even taking slowing down. Even at highway speeds, a MINI (and most other cars, as a matter of fact) are stable enough to make a quick lane change without seriously losing equilibrium.
All you need to do is check quickly on both sides of you to pick the lane into which you’re going to turn, then give the wheel a definite and strong turn in that direction and then back again to straighten yourself out in the new lane. Incidentally, always being sure that you space on one side of you or the other is an important defensive driving technique, so you can execute this maneuver.
Keeping some escape space on at least one side of you is also the reason why you want to avoid getting stuck in the middle of a clump of cars when highway driving. By simply backing off a little, you can usually disengage yourself from these pods of accidents waiting to happen and get yourself a nice safe little empty bubble in which to drive.
This technique of accident-avoidance will require a little practice before you will be confident of your ability to pull it off, which is why nearly all basic safe driving skills courses teach it, using multiple lanes and stop lights. to allow you the chance to improve your reaction time and practice your high speed lane-change skills.

1 comment:

tommy salami said...

I tried this out last week in an empty, long parking lot from around 50mph. The car stops in an amazingly short amount of time- IIRC the MCS equals or beats the BMW M3 in stop time- and it is almost as disorienting as an accident. The car lurches at the first application and the brakes lock, your foot vibrates, and the car has come to a stop. I'll have to find a larger lot to try this at slower speeds, while turning. Thanks once again for a fine article.