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How to Teach the Most Important Emergency Maneuver in Driver Education

Linear emergency braking (aka quick-stop) is inarguably the most fundamental emergency maneuver covered in driver education.

It’s a skill that saves lives.

And it’s a skill that deserves mastery.

As an instructor, getting the most out of teaching quick-stops means maximizing every opportunity to improve student performance during a lesson.

So, I’ve put together a highly effective lesson plan to do just that in 4 easy exercises:

Talking Shop on Quick-Stops

Teaching quick-stops, like any other driving maneuver, requires us to think about the ultimate goal of the maneuver and what must be accomplished to reach that goal.

In this case, the end goal is to stop the vehicle safely in the shortest time/distance possible.

During every instance of braking, there are two basic segments of the maneuver from the driver’s perspective: 1) the reaction and 2) the action.

The reaction phase includes recognizing a braking cue and making the decision to brake. The action phase includes applying the brakes effectively while maintaining control of the vehicle.

Although there are only two stages of the task, there are four separate opportunities to increase proficiency in the maneuver. We can improve reaction time, we can improve braking technique, we can improve the integration of the two phases into one maneuver, and we can improve applying the maneuver in context.

This gives us the overall structure of a comprehensive and highly effective lesson plan with four basic exercises. Each exercise being designed to maximize one of the four opportunities to improve proficiency.

Learning Objectives


1) The student will be able to apply the brake pedal firmly until the vehicle stops completely within a reasonable distance that would be effective in a real-life emergency stopping scenario.

2) The student will be able implement the quick-stop maneuver according to a verbal cue within a reasonable reaction time that would be effective in a real-life emergency scenario.


a) The student will be able to maintain firm steering control and keep the vehicle travelling in a straight path throughout the quick-stop maneuver.

b) The student will be able to quickly check the rear-view mirror for an available space cushion in the rear zone of the vehicle while applying the brake.


Find a large empty parking lot where it will be possible to perform the quick-stop maneuver from speeds between 10 and 15 mph and position the driver education vehicle with plenty of stopping distance and visibility ahead.

Overestimation is best.

Remember that, according to the NHTSA, at 20 mph it takes the average driver approximately 63 feet (including reaction and braking distance) to completely stop a car. But, don’t forget to factor in your student driver’s slower initial reaction time, which is often double that of the average driver. If the average reaction time is approximately 1.5 seconds, then your student’s initial reaction time may be a good 3 seconds – at 20 mph, that translates to an extra 44 feet traveled during the maneuver.

Also, since you’ll be starting each exercise from a stopped position, you’ll need to add in acceleration distance. Based on a recent test by Consumer Reports, today’s vehicles can take between 3.5 and 14.7 seconds to accelerate from 0-60 mph; which approximates to between 35 and 144 feet to accelerate from 0-20 mph.

Finally, be sure to adjust for roadway conditions. Although, this lesson should be performed on dry, level pavement whenever possible.

So, for those keeping score at home: at 20 mph, that’s 63 feet of standard stopping distance plus 44 feet of additional reaction time plus up to 144 feet of acceleration distance; 251 feet in total. And, that’s not including any coasting time between acceleration and the cue to stop or any adjustments for poor roadway conditions.

Stadium parking lots are great for this maneuver, because they are often the length of the adjacent football field or larger.

It’s also a good idea to position the driver education vehicle in such a way that it is unlikely that another driver might show up behind your vehicle during the maneuver.

Positioning the vehicle with a dead-end directly behind at the start of the maneuver is best.

Introduce the Maneuver

Explain to your student that he will accelerate in a straight line to 10-15 mph and maintain that speed range. When you say “STOP!” he will glance at the rearview mirror and brake firmly until the vehicle is completely stopped while maintaining firm, straight steering control.

Then break down the maneuver as follows …

Exercise 1: Braking it Down

The most fundamental skill required to complete an effective quick stop is the ability to properly apply firm pressure to the brake pedal throughout the maneuver.

So, it makes perfect sense to practice this skill in isolation before attempting it in context.

With the vehicle running but in park, have the student practice pivoting from the accelerator to the brake pedal, applying firm pressure to the brake pedal, and holding that pressure for a few seconds to simulate the basic cadence of the overall maneuver.

Having the vehicle running allows the student to experience the feel of an active hydraulic braking system and having the car in park removes extraneous cognitive load.

The most important point here is that your student learns the difference between stomping on the brake pedal and applying firm pressure. Even in vehicles with ABS, stomping on the brake pedal will likely result in skidding during the actual maneuver.

This is also the best time to explain how the brake pedal should feel in a real-life scenario.

When a driver applies firm pressure to the brake pedal of a properly functioning, moving vehicle with ABS, there is pressure and sometimes pulsations pushing back from the braking system that is felt in the driver’s foot. The pulsation comes from the antilock braking system automatically pumping the brake pad(s). The pressure in general is Newton’s third law of motion in action – for every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction. The more pressure a driver applies to the brake pedal, the more pressure should be felt pushing back.

The pressure and pulsating in the pedal is often startling to a driver who is unfamiliar with its occurrence, and the typical response is to remove pressure from the pedal for fear of equipment failure.

So, be sure your student understands that it’s actually a lack of pressure that indicates a problem in braking.

Exercise 2: Advanced Glancing

This exercise is aimed at incorporating a glance at the rear zone and improving reaction/execution time.

With the car running but still in park, have the student practice checking the rearview mirror and applying firm pressure to the brake pedal (using the technique learned in the previous exercise) in response to a verbal “STOP!” cue. Be sure that your student is holding the steering wheel firmly and straight throughout.

It’s also important here that your student begins every iteration of this exercise in a simulated driving position. He should be sitting upright with his left foot on the dead pedal, right foot hovering the accelerator, both hands grasping the steering wheel with a balanced hand position, and eyes looking forward through the front windshield.

The more realistic the simulation, the easier it is to transfer the skills learned to real-life scenarios.

As your student practices this exercise, you should observe her glance at the mirror and then return focus to the front while applying the brake pedal. We want a driver who is aware of her rear zone during emergency braking, not one who is preoccupied with it.

Ideally, your student would begin braking and almost simultaneously glance at the rear zone then immediately return attention to the front while continuing to apply the brake.

Once your student independently demonstrates proper procedure in response to your verbal cue, focus on improving reaction time by continuing to practice this exercise until his execution lacks hesitation.

Exercise 3: The Motion of the Commotion

Now that a stationary simulation of the maneuver has been practiced, it’s time to put things in motion and practice the skills in context for the first time.

Assuming the driver education vehicle is positioned as described in the above “Set-Up” section, have the student accelerate in a straight line to 10-15 mph. Then, while there is still plenty of stopping distance ahead, give the verbal “STOP!” cue.

The student should perform the maneuver exactly as previously simulated, demonstrating the techniques learned in the last two exercises.

At first, you will likely notice some hesitation in his execution and insufficient pressure applied to the brake pedal, which results in longer stopping distances. As you continue to practice this maneuver with your student, his stopping distance should improve with each repetition as he becomes more and more acclimated to the real-life experience – especially when there is specific encouragement toward this goal.

Continue to repeat this exercise until your student demonstrates a reasonable stopping distance that would be effective in a real-life emergency stopping scenario. What matters most in this exercise is not where the vehicle stops but how quickly it stops.

Exercise 4: Don’t Hit That Imaginary Line!

In real-life, quick-stops come into play when a hazard pops up unexpectedly and there is little time/space to stop before a collision.

So, this final exercise is designed to simulate that scenario by designating a specific reference point ahead and instructing your student to stop the vehicle before reaching it.

This is the time to bust out your trusty cones and/or poles.

Place one cone/pole far enough away to allow plenty of space to complete the maneuver and with plenty of space beyond it in case the student is unsuccessful. Then explain to your student that she will be expected to stop before passing the cone/pole.

Be sure that there is plenty of space between the path of travel and the cone/pole. (NOTE: Your student’s path of travel should be a straight line parallel to the cone/pole. She will not be driving directly toward the cone/pole. The cone/pole is not a target, it is a reference point for roadway position in the same way that a stop sign might be.)

Then, assuming the previously described “Set-Up” position, have the student accelerate the vehicle to 10-15 mph and maintain that speed. Wait until the vehicle is within a reasonably short distance from passing the reference point and then give the cue to “STOP!”

The cue should be given with enough time and space remaining to successfully stop before passing the reference point but not so far away that a quick-stop is not necessary to achieve the goal.

It’s always better to set your students up for a win before asking them to up their game.

So, be generous when cueing the “STOP!” for the first time, and then delay the cue (within reason) a little more for each subsequent attempt.

A key part of what makes this exercise so effective is the fact that your student knows that a cue to “STOP!” will be given but doesn’t necessarily know when. This small element of surprise contributes in a big way to the transfer of skills from simulation to real-life. After all, every quick-stop begins as a reaction to something unexpected.

Repeat this exercise until the student can stop the vehicle completely before passing the reference point and without skidding after a verbal cue given no more than 70 feet prior to passing the reference point at a speed no more than 15 mph (assuming ideal weather and roadway conditions).

As soon as your student successfully completes all four exercises, she will have mastered a cornerstone skill in traffic safety.

Thanks for reading!

See you next time!

DISCLAIMER: This post was created for educational purposes only. Suggestions made here are intended for professional instructors. It is the instructor’s sole responsibility to utilize professional judgement at all times, including the discretion to utilize any suggestions safely and appropriately.



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