How to Safely Handle Unsafe Road Situations

unsafe road situations
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What should you do if you’re in a minor accident but it doesn’t feel safe to get out of your car to exchange information with the other driver? A recent “Ask an Agent” question sent to The Zebra got us wondering about this and other driving scenarios where the safest course of action might not be intuitive. We asked some experts for their advice on how to safely handle unsafe road situations when…

When It’s Too Dangerous to Get Out and Exchange Info

Let’s start with the situation from the “Ask an Agent” question. If you need to swap info with the other driver, but it seems dangerous to get out of your car where you are, try to pull off the road to a safer location. Senior Police Officer Destiny Winston of the Austin Police Department says that, ideally, you’re looking for a well-lit parking lot at an open business with some people around. Once in a safe place, call 911 for an officer to come to the scene. As we’ve written before, always call police after a car accident, even if there seems to be only minor scrapes or dings. The damage may be worse than you can see. And a police accident report can help you resolve things if you need to involve your insurance companies.

When You Can’t Get Off the Road After an Accident

If your car is no longer drivable, get out of it if you can and take your phone with you, Winston says. Check the other vehicle to see if anyone is injured and needs your assistance and then assess the overall situation. If possible, leave the roadway, try to get to a parking lot or even a residential street, and then call 911.

But if you’re on the interstate and don’t see a way to get to a lower-traffic area, stay in your car. If remaining in your car also feels unsafe — for example, if your car is smoking — just get a safe distance away and then call 911.

When You Can’t Pull Over When a Police Car Signals

Let’s say you’re in one of the middle lanes of a traffic-clogged interstate when you see an officer’s flashing lights in your rearview. For your safety and theirs, police officers want you to pull over to the right before stopping, and they’ll be patient as you work your way across the road, Winston says. Just avoid speeding up or making lane changes that make it seem like you’re trying to elude the officer. If you’re on a high-speed roadway, take the nearest exit and pull into a parking lot if possible.

P.S. No matter what lane you’re driving in, getting pulled over is stressful. Your first reaction might be to slam on your brakes, Winston says, but remember that officers will always want you to get safely out of traffic first. “We don’t want you stop on a high-speed roadway because that puts you at risk, as well as the officer,” she says. “Your safety is the most important thing.”

police car pulling driver over

When You Have a Tire Blowout

Thanks to soaring blacktop temperatures, summer is prime time for tire failure, says Jeff Westover, a former police officer and the owner of Tacoma 911 Driving School in Washington. That includes blowouts and, even more commonly, tread separations, Westover says. If either happens to you, the most important things to remember are to not panic and to not hit your brakes immediately (which might be your first instinct).

Instead, keep a firm grip on the wheel and let the car slow to a safe speed before pulling off to the side of the road. If your tire fails on a high-speed road, call 911 so police officers can block traffic around your car as the tire gets fixed, Winston says. The responding officer can also call a tow truck for you if you’re not part of an assistance program like AAA.

To reduce your risk of getting a blowout in the first place, have your tires checked each time you get an oil change. (Tires are the most neglected part of a car, Westover says.) Your mechanic should check for signs of damage, as well as tread depth and tire pressure. It’s also a good idea have your tires checked before a longer road trip — a service you can often have done for free. 

When Something Falls off Your Vehicle into the Roadway

First, focus on just getting your car or truck off the road to a safe location, Winston says. Then get a handle on where your overboard item is and the best way to retrieve it. If you’re on a quieter street, you may be able to just wait until traffic clears to retrieve your stuff. But on a high-speed road, you should call police for help, Winston says. They can direct traffic around you as you retrieve your cargo. To avoid this situation, take the extra time to secure items correctly in your truck bed before hitting the road. 

busy highway

When You See Someone Having Car Trouble

You’re driving along when see another motorist with his or her vehicle stopped and the hood open. Should you stop and try to help? Unless you’re a mechanic, you’re probably not going to be able to offer much assistance, Winston says. So it’s safer and more practical just to call police so they can come out and give the other motorist a hand. If the distressed motorist is in a safer area, like a well-lit parking lot with people around, alert police via a non-emergency line. But if the motorist is in a riskier situation – like walking alongside the interstate — call 911.

You can’t anticipate every crisis you might encounter when driving. But these tips can help you stay calm and safe the next time the unexpected happens.