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What if it happens on a bridge or a freeway?

The traffic report warns of a stalled truck on the right shoulder of the highway, or a broken-down car on the bridge. What if it were you in that vehicle?

A breakdown on a freeway or bridge can be extremely dangerous. Drivers on fast-moving roads often get tunnel vision, especially on familiar highways. In some collisions, drivers claimed they didn't even see a stalled car before they hit it, according to the California Highway Patrol.

There are ways to improve your safety on these roads whether you're on a highway where you can pull out of the traffic lanes or on a bridge with no shoulder. Every breakdown situation is different, but here are some general guidelines from the CHP and the AAA Traffic Safety Department.

The most hazardous place to break down is a road with no shoulder. If you find yourself having car trouble on an enclosed roadway, use your turn signal to warn other drivers that you are changing lanes, and move to a side lane--preferably the right-hand lane. Then, immediately turn on your hazard lights.

If you can keep moving, do so. Do not stop because of a flat tire or because you sense there is a problem. It is usually best to keep driving until you find a safe area in which to pull over. Your tire rim is less important than your life.

If you stall in a side lane of a bridge, the CHP recommends you set your brake, and get out of your car on the side away from traffic. Keep your eyes on traffic as you set up your emergency warning devices. Use the nearest call box, then stand approximately 150 feet in front of your vehicle on the catwalk area.

If you break down on a roadway with a shoulder, immediately use your turn signal and pull completely out of the traffic lane (on the right if possible). Turn on your hazard lights, and if there is a call box, use it, then stay in your car with the doors locked. If there is no call box, stay in your car with your doors locked. If possible, don't set your brake, and leave your car in neutral. This will decrease impact if you are hit. If someone approaches the car, open your window just slightly and ask them to send help.

Dos and Don'ts

  • If you are having car trouble, and there is any place to pull off, get out of moving traffic.
  • If you stall in a lane of traffic, turn on your hazard lights, and stay in the car. Never try to cross a freeway on foot.
  • Always keep an eye on approaching traffic after you've stopped.
  • Always wear your seat belt when waiting for help in your car.
  • If you have a cellular phone, call 911, and tell the 911 operator your location immediately. (Cellular 911 calls are routed to a central dispatch center and operators cannot determine your location.)
  • Don't try to fix your car. It is dangerous to work under the hood, under your car, or next to your car (even if you are using emergency warning devices) in or near fast-moving traffic.
  • Be careful where you place a lighted flare. They can ignite anything flammable, including dry brush or weeds beside the road.
  • Leave pets in the car. Animals are much safer, for you and them, in the car.

Before you go

  • Make sure you have enough fuel. A surprising number of people simply run out of gas on the freeway.
  • Carry emergency materials. These can include: flares, a flashlight or a hand-held floodlight (with good batteries), an emergency warning triangle, a distress flag (available free at any AAA District Office), a first aid kit, and a reflector vest. Carry these in the passenger area, rather than in the trunk, of your car. It can be dangerous to stand behind your car fiddling with the trunk.
  • If you're traveling away from home, plan your trip: Carry up-to-date maps so you can pinpoint your location in an emergency. In remote areas carry food, water, and blankets.

When another car is broken down

If you see a highway patrol car weaving back and forth across lanes of traffic with lights on, it is slowing traffic because of a problem ahead. Do not try to pass.

Be aware of the road ahead--not just the car in front of you. Watch for brake or hazard lights, and help alert other drivers by tapping your brakes and slowing down. If you have a cellular phone, call 911 to report another broken down car.

Breakdowns on the Bay Bridge

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) is considering a new policy that would dramatically change towing on the Oakland/San Francisco Bay Bridge, and could leave stranded drivers waiting for up to 30 minutes. Currently, Caltrans stations tow trucks at both ends, and in the middle (at Yerba Buena Island) of the Bay Bridge 24 hours a day. Depending on traffic, motorists stranded on the Bay Bridge wait about five minutes before a tow truck reaches them.

At press time Caltrans was considering a proposal to contract their night owl (10 p.m. to 6 a.m.) service to a private company because of budget pressures. Private companies could be allowed up to 30 minutes to reach the disabled vehicle.

Each month over 2,700 people use a call box on the Bay Bridge. Of these, 324 do so during "night owl" hours. The AAA Traffic Safety Department warns drivers to be especially sure that their cars are in good condition, and that they are not low on fuel (over 3,000 people ran out of gas on the Bay Bridge last year).


This article was first published in May 1996. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.