The best way to avoid a head-on car crash is to drive off the side of the road.

How to avoid a head-on car crash


You are driving along when suddenly an oncoming car drifts into your lane. You are about to have a head-on collision! What would you do?

The average driver would answer: 'Brake!’

Sure, braking will scrub off some speed so a head-on impact may be at 180km/h rather than 200km/h. But, if you use a crash avoidance technique, that crash may never occur. 

Such techniques need to be pre-planned. Pre-planning is a vital safety factor in a life-threatening crisis, like the routine taught to children if their clothing catches on fire – Stop, Drop and Roll.

Pre-planning can help you avoid a head on collision.

Pre-planning can help you avoid a head on collision.

Pre-planning works. Winging it in a crash situation rarely does.

Head-on collisions mostly occur either because a car drifts into the wrong lane on a corner or an oncoming car on a straight moves into the other lane, sometimes because someone makes a poor passing decision. These latter crashes don’t usually involve last minute moves into the oncoming lane, but happen in the middle of the passing manoeuvre – when both drivers on collision course have had time to see each other and react.

The driver of the passing car doesn’t react because he or she is committed to passing and and doesn't have the mental control to abort the manoeuvre. The most mysterious thing at first glance is why the other driver doesn’t get out of the way.

The answer lies in a thing called ‘IQ Dump’. In a crisis, an unprepared brain doesn’t work too well. The enormity of the situation overwhelms it. Staring death in the grille, the brain can’t process all the information about the crash situation and order the body to take the best remedial action. Instead, the driver’s brain works on instinct and, usually, simply tells its owner to stomp on the brakes. 

Driving onto the berm or even into the ditch could save your life.

Driving onto the berm or even into the ditch could save your life.

Instinctive reactions can kill you. For example, throughout your driving lifetime you train yourself to stay on the sealed road surface and, thus, staying on the sealed surface becomes an instinctive reaction. Yet, in a head-on crash situation, your best chances come with moving off the sealed surface, out of the way of the oncoming vehicle. If you are driving on instinct, your brain won’t tell your arms to steer the car off the road and, at worst, into the ditch. 

To beat these dangerous instincts, you have to seriously think about what you should do in a crash situation. That way you will have options available to use – and hugely increase your chances of coming out unharmed or, at least, alive. 

Top tips for avoiding a head-on car crash:

  • Your chances of survival in a crash are directly related to whether you are wearing a seatbelt. 
  • Your chances of survival on the road are directly proportional to how well and when you see hazards. The earlier you see a hazard, the more time you have to counter the problem and the easier it is to avoid an impact. 
  • But let’s say that, despite your great scanning, a car has drifted into your lane.  
  • Do not swerve to the right unless you are absolutely certain you can pass that oncoming car while staying in your own lane. On a straight section of road, that is most unlikely. 
  • The dangers of trying to swerve right into the other lane are very real. Firstly, the oncoming vehicle may move back into its lane and a head-on collision will occur anyway. Secondly, by swerving right, you may miss hitting the oncoming one in your lane… but smash head-on into some law-abiding driver in their correct lane.
  • Brake and move left towards the side of the road. Do not brake completely to a stop. You may need to be able to swerve out of the way at the last moment should the oncoming vehicle swerve towards you. 
  • Be prepared to move off the sealed surface to avoid a crash.
  • Don’t make a sudden swerve off the road. This could cause you to lose control. 
  • Make that move off the sealed surface a calculated move. Do not panic. On most roads there is room for a car to motor along the berm without going into the ditch. But, if you have to go into the ditch, do so. It is far safer to go into the ditch than to have a head-on impact with another vehicle.
  • As you move off the road and out of the path of the oncoming vehicle, ease up on the brakes so that your car doesn’t skid. This skid could cause you to lose control. Make any steering movements subtle. 
  • Don’t look into the ditch or you may head into it. Look along the berm, where you want to go. 
  • Once the oncoming car has passed you, make a gentle steering movement back onto the road. Don’t steer hard back onto the road unless you have no other option – faced with hitting a crash barrier, for example. 
  • Once back on the road, stop and pull over again safely to let your beating heart calm down. Don’t drive on again until you have calmed down.

You now have pre-planned reactions for avoiding a head-on collision on a straight. Keep these in your brain and, heaven forbid, should the situation ever arise when you need them, they will be there for you to pluck out and use to survive.


Story by Allan Kirk for the Spring 2023 issue of AA Directions Magazine. Allan Kirk is the CEO of the New Zealand Motorcycle Safety Consultants.

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