No Good Choices When Your Vehicle is Disabled on a Highway

I’ve been in the situation William Schettino was in when his car broke down in the HOV lane of the westbound Long Island Expressway earlier this month. For me it was on the New York State Thruway in pouring rain when the windshield wipers somehow got tangled up with one another and would not work. It was impossible to see, and the only thing to do was to pull onto the shoulder and stop. There we sat, waiting for help while traffic whizzed by in the lanes next to us (65 M.P.H. speed limit). I felt like there might as well be a bulls-eye painted on the rear of our minivan, and I needed to get out of the vehicle. But there was a guardrail next to the shoulder and a wall of rocks after that, so there was no place to go.

Eventually, a police car arrived and sat behind us with his flashing lights on. At least then the approaching drivers saw the lights and most moved from the right lane into the center lane.

Whether or not to get out of your disabled vehicle is a big question. AAA of New York offers this advice on what to do if your vehicle becomes disabled in a high traffic area:

1. Turn on your vehicle’s hazard lights.

2. If possible, safely move your vehicle off the road, away from traffic.

3. Stay inside your vehicle once it is off the road and make all passengers stay inside, too. Keep doors locked.

4. If you’re unable to get off the roadway, get out of the vehicle and stand in a safe place about 60 feet away from the rear of it. That way the traffic sees you before they see your car.

5. Raise the vehicle’s hood, tie a white cloth to a door handle or use reflective triangles or flares.

6. Set triangles or flares up behind the disabled car to alert approaching motorists.

William Schettino got out of his vehicle and was struck by a Suffolk County sheriff’s office patrol car as he stood near his car. The Sheriff’s department said the deputy involved had been blinded by sun glare and was surprised by the stopped 2011 Mazda. The deputy tried to swerve to his left onto a marked shoulder, but he clipped the Mazda and struck the 19-year old student.

Although Mr. Schettino apparently got out of his vehicle against the advice of his mother, it’s understandable. With cars speeding by so closely, you feel that if your vehicle is hit you will definitely be seriously injured, if not killed. But if you get out you lose the protection the vehicle’s metal provides to you, especially if your vehicle is struck and debris flies. There are really no good choices. We’re sorry for his family’s loss.

Being stuck in that precarious situation made me appreciate the “move over law” that was new for 2011. Drivers must reduce speed on all roads when encountering such vehicles. Importantly, on parkways, interstates, and other controlled access highways with multiple lanes, drivers are further required to move from the lane immediately adjacent to the emergency vehicle, unless traffic or other hazards exist to prevent doing so safely. In 2012, the Move Over Law was expanded to include tow trucks and other hazard vehicles.

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