What to do if your car breaks down on the expressway at night
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Twice recently pedestrians died in predawn darkness on I-285 on the north side of Atlanta. Tragedy for the victims and their families led to massive morning traffic jams for hundreds of thousands of Atlanta area commuter.
On January 22, 2015, there was no clear explanation why a woman was walking on I-285. Several vehicles ran over her body before anyone apparently realized what had happened. That fatal incident remains a mystery.
Then on February 6, 2015, a collision at 4:30 AM led to one driver to get out of his vehicle, cross the emergency lane, then try to get back to his disabled vehicle. At that point he was struck and killed by another vehicle.
Over the years I have worked on a number of cases with similar scenarios. One of the last criminal jury trials I defended before switching to 100% civil litigation involved defense of a truck driver who struck a pedestrian at 4:30 AM on I-20 in Douglas County, then continued to the next exit before stopping. That pedestrian had run out of gas, was walking back to this car with a can of gas, and was stuck when attempting to cross the road to his car. He jumped back to avoid the oncoming truck just as the truck driver swerved to avoid him, and the fatal impact was in the emergency lane. We won acquittal of the truck driver on the charge of Homicide by Vehicle. He was convicted of only failure to stop and render aid because he did not stop at the scene. He paid a $1,000 fine and went home to his family.
A few years ago, we represented the mother of a young woman who was killed when struck by a tractor trailer after the car in which she was a passenger hydroplaned and was disabled on I-285 on a rainy night. It was a very tough liability case. Because the truck driver had not shown up for a drug test required under federal regulations and later was convicted of drug trafficking in Alabama, we were able to work out a compromise settlement. Without the drug issue, we probably would not have come out well at all.
Recently a lawyer in another state called me about helping with the trial of a case in which their client’s decedent was killed when struck by a truck in a disabled vehicle on an interstate highway in predawn darkness. I helped brainstorm possible approaches but respectfully declined to get involved in the case.
What should you do if your vehicle is disabled on the road at night? Here are a few of the many suggestions from AAA interspersed with my own thoughts:
- Immediately activate your hazard flashers. With the bad events I have seen in my law practice, I hit the hazard flasher button as soon as I see traffic is slowing dramatically in the highway.
- Get all the way off the road if you possibly can. Disabled vehicles in the roadway tend to get hit, sometimes due to following drivers speeding, failing to keep a lookout, etc. Even if you are innocent and the driver who hits you is grossly negligent in 100 ways, the outcome for you will not be good if you are hit.
- Quickly note your vehicle’s locations – landmarks, mile markers, etc. – to give to the 911 operator and roadside assistance.
- Call 911 for police or HERO unit help, and if appropriate call your auto club for roadside assistance.
- If your car is disabled in a traffic lane, get yourself completely out of the road. If you are on the interstate, it may be safest to wait on the grassy right-of-way completely off the pavement. Getting cold and wet is better than being hit by a tractor trailer at highway speed.
- If you must exit the vehicle try to do so from the passenger’s side, away from traffic. If that is not feasible, at least pull as far off the traffic lanes as possible. If you are blocked in by a concrete wall, just don’t get out. Either drive up the emergency lane to the next exit with you hazard lights flashing or sit still with you hazard lights flashing while waiting for assistance. That may be the “least bad” option.
- If you wait in your vehicle, put up the hood and lock your doors. Exercise discernment about offers of help from strangers. Generally, ask them to call police for assistance. If you are threatened or harassed while waiting in your car, honk the horn repeatedly and flash the lights to attract attention. Don’t leave the engine on for extended periods to heat or cool the vehicle. You could put yourself and any passengers at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
- If you have flares, reflective triangles, etc., set them out if you can do so. But be very careful to avoid any oncoming traffic.
- Place a “Send Help” sign in a window so it is visible to other motorists. Open the vehicle’s hood and leave it open. Tie a light colored cloth to the antennae or door handle.
- If possible, stay with the vehicle until uniformed law enforcement arrives, especially at night or during bad weather.
- If you are stuck in an ice storm and slide off the road due to other vehicles stopping in front of you, exercise great caution in attempts to get back on the road. In such situations, calling 911 may be useless as police are already overwhelmed, and staying on the road overnight in the cold carries its own dangers including hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning. If you try to push you vehicle back onto the road in the ice, keep a watch out for oncoming hazards, such as speeding truckers who ignore their own safety rules. In our last ice storm, GDOT reported that all major accidents involved tractor trailers.
- If you need to change a tire, exercise extreme caution regarding traffic. Too often we see reports of people stuck and killed while trying to change a tire in the emergency lane. It is better to ruin a tire or even a wheel by running on a rim to the next exit than to sacrifice your life for a tire. If you have to change a tire on the roadside, make sure you are way out of the traffic lanes. Don’t just park in the emergency lane of an interstate; park with the right side wheel well onto the grass. Better yet, call for roadside assistance so the flat tire can be addressed by a guy in a tow truck with flashing emergency light who will park behind you and both warn and block oncoming traffic.
- Avoid standing directly behind or in front of your vehicle. Other drivers may not be able to see you, with potentially fatal results.
- If you decide you must walk, write down: Your name, the date, the time you left, the direction you are going, the plate number of the vehicle you are riding in, description of the vehicle, name and description of the person you are riding with. Notify law enforcement of the location and circumstances in which you left your vehicle.
- Read the rest of the AAA suggestions.
Ken Shigley is a double board certified civil trial attorney in Atlanta, past president of the State Bar of Georgia and chair-elect of the American Association for Justice Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway & Premises Liability Section.