What Should You Do If Your Car Breaks Down On The Highway?

Admittedly, the scenario that caused such havoc and horror on the Gardiner Expressway Monday doesn’t happen every day – a car losing its tire in a live lane of traffic. But vehicles being what they are, they can break down anywhere at any time. And when it’s on a major roadway in the dark, the danger is doubled.

In this case, it doesn’t appear that the first vehicle had enough time to get off the road before being hit by a third that sandwiched a middle car in between them. But there are guidelines to follow if you suffer a breakdown in the worst place possible. “It depends on … where you are,” outlines Cst. Dave Woodford of the OPP. “If there’s shoulders, can you get out of your vehicle? You stay in your vehicle. There’s no proper answer to that.”

But there are some basics you can practice to increase the chances you won’t get hit. “Put on your four-way flashers so vehicles behind you know that there is a danger approaching.” And there are other practical suggestions that could be life savers.

Car Breaks Down & You Can’t Get Over To The Shoulder (Getting stuck in a live lane)

“If they’re in a live lane of traffic they have to get out of the car,” Sgt. Brian Bowman of Toronto Police Traffic Services tells CityNews.ca. In his experience, when he’s had to stop with a police car, officers don’t put the car in park, they sit there with the brake on and carefully watch the rear view mirror, he said, “because we get hit all the time.” That way, if it looks like someone’s coming they can take evasive action.

Sgt. Bowman warns you should climb over the guardrail if you’re stuck in the far right hand lane and wait there. “If you’re on the left side, I would go somewhere ahead of my vehicle and off to the side and be watching vigilantly for traffic coming, that’s overtaking your vehicle.”

Every situation will be different in terms of location, weather and traffic flow, but if you can, Bowman suggests you find a safe place outside your vehicle to wait.

Your Car Breaks Down & You’re On The Shoulder

No matter what time of day it is, or how busy the road, you should never get out of your vehicle. Your best bet is to call a tow truck or police, or wait for a cruiser to come by. Cops always patrol major highways looking for stranded motorists. “Call the police, we have tow trucks available and we can come and block the highway behind you,” Bowman said.

If you’re stopped in a hazardous position, don’t be afraid to call 911, he added.

When Is It Safe To Change A Flat Tire?

If you get a flat and you’re on the side of the highway, is it safe to change the tire? “Only if the distance between where the vehicle is, as far as the tire change, does not afford you in any way being an obstruction to a live lane of traffic,” explains OPP Cst. G. D’Souza. “If the distance between the white line that actually signifies where the shoulder is, if you’re really close to the white line, forget changing the tire.”

The preference is that you stay in your car, turn the hazard lights on, and call the police. If you don’t have a cell phone, place a ‘Call Help’ or ‘Call Police’ sign in your window. Those placards can be purchased at most hardware stores, or you can make one and keep it in your car for emergencies.

“You might think, ‘oh great I’ve got maybe five feet of clearance’ and then you go out and next thing you know you’re adjusting your body to see where my jack should go and the next thing you know you’ve got a foot in a live lane,” D’Souza adds.

You See Someone Who Needs Help At The Side Of The Highway

“Make a quick note of where you are on the highway when you saw this thing happen, get off the highway and … use your phone at a gas station or something,” D’Souza advises. The idea is that you’re not putting yourself in the position of potentially causing another accident by using your phone while you’re driving. If you spot someone in trouble, find a safe place to pull off the road, like a gas station or restaurant, and place a call from there.

How To Come To A Stop Safely

  • Make sure to signal and come to a gradual stop.
  • DON’T make a sudden move across multiple lanes.
  • If possible, stop at least 5-10 car lengths ahead of the stranded vehicle – use the extra space as a buffer zone.
  • Right your wheels AWAY from oncoming traffic.  That will lessen the likelihood of causing another accident if your car is rear-ended.
  • Keep your four-way flashing lights on.
  • Make sure your parking brake is down.
  • Assess the situation carefully before deciding whether or not to get out.

If You Decide To Get Out To Help

Getting out of a vehicle on the highway is extremely dangerous.  Make sure you’ve looked at all your options before you get out:

  • Never exit from the driver’s side if you can avoid it.
  • Don’t wade into oncoming traffic. If you’re leaving passengers inside, make sure they’re all properly strapped in.
  • The first thing to do once you’ve left your vehicle is to secure the area. 
  • Use pylons or emergency markers placed at least 10 metres away.  This will let people know something is wrong.
  • If someone is hurt, call 911 immediately.

Other tips:

-Tie a cloth to your radio antenna or door handle and raise the hood to indicate you’ve broken down.

-Let the situation determine if you stay with your vehicle or not. If there’s a service station not far away, it may be better to try to reach it than to remain in a car in the dark, especially in the winter. But if you’re stranded somewhere remote, you may want to stay inside the automobile.

-Keep your car tuned up and well maintained. If you don’t, you could get slapped with an unsafe vehicle charge, and that comes with an automatic court appearance and a minimum $500 fine.

Courtesy: CAA/ Young Drivers of Canada

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