Question: What does one do when driving a vehicle that abruptly stalls in traffic without giving the driver a chance to slide it over to the shoulder? — Sean R., Puyallup
Answer: Short of any sort of collision, that’s among the nightmare scenarios for driving down a busy road: One moment you’re cruising along with traffic, and the next, said traffic is swerving to avoid an obstruction that has surrendered its status as a motor vehicle.
Whether that happens by a circumstance of utter predictability — remember, your car does need enough gas (and/or electric charge) to deliver you to where you plan to be — or an abrupt, catastrophic vehicular collapse straight out of “The Blues Brothers,” the Washington State Patrol says the key rule is to stay belted inside your car, or whatever remains of it.
Then hit the hazard lights, call the authorities and hold tight.
“You’re going to be a lot safer inside the car than outside of it,” said Sgt. Paul Cagle, an Olympia-based State Patrol spokesman.
That’s especially true if you’re on a busy highway, such as Interstate 5 between Tacoma and Seattle.
Cagle said dialing 911 from a stopped car in the middle of the interstate is completely appropriate. You’ll need to give the operator the lane you’re stuck in, which side of the highway you’re on if it’s a divided road and, ideally, the milepost where your car has seized up.
An officer who rolls up by car or motorcycle can arrange for any assistance, such as a tow or a state Department of Transportation truck with a flashing-arrow sign to divert traffic.
An old adage says there’s never a cop around when you need one. Accordingly, you probably aren’t going to stall out with a State Patrol car poised to help from a few yards away.
This presents two problems for the stranded motorist: summoning help, then finding the safest way to wait for it.
Mobile phones have solved the first issue for most folks. Once the car is stopped and its flashers are on, pull the phone out of the place where you stow it safely away during drives and dial 911.
If you’re among the dwindling population without a cellphone — or if its battery is as dead as your car’s fuel is empty (and you’ve already resolved to plan life better going forward) — waving for help from passing drivers is a helpful distress signal, Cagle said.
“I can’t guarantee that, but somebody will more than likely call emergency services,” he said.
Cellphones have made motorist assistance harder in one respect: the handful of states, including Washington, that once maintained networks of roadside distress call boxes have mostly pulled them out.
If truly stranded and unable to contact any assistance, walking to the nearest outpost of civilization is always an option, albeit fraught with peril, Cagle said.
“I would say that’s a last resort and very dangerous,” he added.
Most likely on a busier road, a stuck car means a quick distress call and a seems-like-forever wait until help arrives, be it a tow truck or a friend with a fuel can.
Oftentimes, a passer-by with helpful intentions will stop to aid, perhaps mindful of the Christian tradition’s parable of the good Samaritan.
The best help to provide, Cagle said, is a 911 call.
Trying to push the stopped car to the shoulder, he said, is dangerous no matter how you do it. Walking up to push a car out of the road from behind is dangerous even if you park behind them, Cagle said.
Similar circumstances led to the 1985 death of trooper Glenda Thomas, the only female State Patrol officer killed in the line of duty. She was standing between two wrecked cars on the north Seattle freeway when a driver rear-ended one of the cars, pinning her between the automobiles.
And butting the car out of the way with your own opens up motorist liability issues if any damage is done.
“It’s great that people want to be out there and help,” Cagle said, “but it’s probably better to let emergency services, because they’re going to be better equipped to assist a disabled motorist.”
Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693