Breakdown at the Roadside? Where Should you Wait, for Greatest Safety?

Many people are killed or seriously injured while waiting for a repair or a tow after breaking down on the side of the road, so how should you protect yourself?

Waiting in a broken-down vehicle or standing beside it like this could cost you your life if it is hit by another vehicle. (Wikimedia Commons)

Waiting in your car for a tow truck may seem perfectly acceptable but it is actually a high-risk policy.

Remember there are at least as many drunk, drowsy, and distracted drivers on highways as there are on any other roads, so never assume you won’t get hit.

If a stopped car on the shoulder is hit by a semi — even one not going as fast as the speed limit, your car could be totally crushed and knocked for hundreds of feet. (Copyright image.)

And, as always, speeders are even more deadly.

The numbers and rate of such crashes varies from country to country, but wherever you are, we can guarantee you would be surprised if you knew how many people are killed each year while sitting in a static vehicle on the shoulder of a highway.

So what’s the safest thing to do, if you break down?

To help everyone understand this, let’s describe a divided highway as being like a river:  The traffic — just like water — flows from “upstream” to “downstream.”  Knowing this makes the advice much easier to understand.

The big and often catastrophic mistake that people make is to think that if they are out of the vehicle — perhaps looking under the hood or changing a wheel on the right side — their vehicle is effectively a safety barrier that will protect them.  But nothing could be further from the truth.

Static vehicles that get hit from behind by moving vehicles behave just like massive billiard balls as they get cannoned forwards by the impact…. and you really, really don’t want to be in the way!

People come up with lots of reasons why they don’t want to move away from their  car if it breaks down — one of the very few good reasons being for a woman travelling alone who needs the security of being able to lock herself in the vehicle if an unknown person approaches her on foot.  (But if you feel you must stay in your vehicle, keep your seatbelt tightly fastened!)

But other excuses are simply dangerous.  For example, if it’s raining, which problem is more likely to kill someone?  The rain, or being in a parked car that gets slammed by another vehicle that’s doing, say, 65mph?  Yes, it’s a silly question, but guess what most people choose to do!

So the safest thing to do is get everyone out of your vehicle and as far away from the traffic as possible — and up the embankment if there is one.  (Going down an embankment has disadvantages, including the fact that you will lose sight of your vehicle, so only do this if you have good reason.)

And in relation to your vehicle MOVE UPSTREAM, not downstream.  That way, if your car gets hit, it cannot possibly hit you.

This man doesn’t have to wear a reflective jacket under U.S. law (although in many countries if you break down you must, because it is so much safer) but either he or his boss knows the big advantage of doing so.  (Copyright image, 2018.)

For safety’s sake, it is wise to always carry bright, retro-reflective outer garments — lime-yellow of dayglo orange, similar to what construction-zone workers use.  Waterproof ones serve two purposes if it is raining!

In support of this let us add that in most European countries it is actually the law that each car/driver MUST carry two reflective jackets because they are so important for saving lives at breakdowns and crash sites.

So:  Stay as far away from your disabled car and the moving vehicles as you can safely get, and wait “upstream” of your car rather then downstream.

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