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The Trans-Canada Highway just south of Wawa, Ontario (MARK RICHARDSON for The Globe and Mail)
The Trans-Canada Highway just south of Wawa, Ontario (MARK RICHARDSON for The Globe and Mail)

Driving Concerns

Is it safer to pull over atop a hill or in a valley? Add to ...

People who want to pull over seem to do so at the crest of a hill. This is actually dangerous, especially if the shoulder is narrow. Someone coming along behind may have to cross over the centre line to get by. So isn’t it better to pull over at the bottom of the hill - in the valley? There, a car is equally visible to traffic coming in both directions. - Andrew, Brantford, Ont.

Over hill or over dale? Unless it’s a serious emergency, you shouldn’t be pulling over on the highway at all, police say.

“It’s emergency parking only on provincial highways - you can’t pull over because you’re hungry or you want a nap,” says Sgt. Kerry Schmidt, with Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) highway safety division. “We don’t want want you on the side of the road because that’s where people get killed.”

What constitutes an emergency? It’s not a text from your boss, a full bladder, or kids screaming because you left their iPads in the trunk.

“If your vehicle is no longer able to drive,” Schmidt says. “But even if it’s damaged, you should limp it off the road until you can find somewhere safe - keep driving on flat tires even if you’ll wreck your rims.”

The OPP didn’t have exact statistics immediately available on roadside deaths, but since 1989, five officers have been killed while stopped at the side of the road, Schmidt says.

“It’s why we have the ‘slow-down, move-over’ law,” he says. That law says you have to slow down and, if possible, move over one lane when you see an emergency vehicle or tow truck stopped with its flashing lights on. If you don’t, it’s three demerits and a minimum $490 fine in Ontario, including surcharges.

“Pulling over on the side of the road is such a dangerous thing across Canada that most jurisdictions actually have you practise an emergency roadside stop as part of the government road test,” says Angelo DiCicco, general manager (GTA) of Young Drivers of Canada.”People run into school buses and they’re big and yellow - if your kids have to pee, it’s better to use a KFC bucket.”

Instead of pulling over on a busy road or highway, take the next exit or pull over at the next service station or rest stop, DiCicco says.

Hill or valley?

If you have to pull over, it’s better to avoid hills and valleys entirely, DiCicco says.

“It’s best on flat open terrain so you’re very visible from both directions, assuming, again, that you wouldn't get off on side street or offramp which would be most safe,” he says. “But the reality is, it’s not as safe as not doing it because stopping in an area designed for traffic to be going is dumb.”

The worst place you could stop? The top of hill - especially at night, DiCicco says.

“Light travels in straight line, so being at top of a hill, no one will necessarily see you,” DiCicco says. “The lesser of two evils would be at the bottom.”

When you do pull over, you should “slow down appropriately as much as possible without interfering with the traffic behind,” and then signal, DiCicco says.

“Once you’re stopped, then you have to put on your four-way flashers - that’s the universal signal for ‘leave me alone,’” DiCicco says. “And not your right turn signal - people will think you’re still moving and making a turn and that’s how people get rear-ended.”

Schmidt says four-way flashers are a good idea to make yourself as visible as possible, even though they’re not required by the Highway Traffic Act. They’re not normally a signal for "I need help” but "a sign that you’re a hazard on the road,” he says.

So, if you do see a car pulled over with four-way flashers on - or the hood up - should you pull over to help?

“I guess it depends on the circumstances and if you can do it safely” Schmidt says. “A lot of people will call 911 or the OPP at *677 [*OPP] and say there’s a car stopped on the highway.”

Often, police get multiple calls for stopped cars and they - and a tow truck - may already on their way, he said. But it doesn’t hurt to let them know, anyway, he says.

But if only your taillights are on, another driver may think you’re in the live lane.

“They’ll lane-change into a stopped vehicle,” DiCicco says. “It’s a very common occurrence.”

If you do pull over, get your car as far away from the road as you can, the OPP’s Schmidt says.

“You don’t want to be up against the concrete barrier,” he says. “And if you’re getting out of the car, you don’t want to be anywhere near the road - last year a guy changing a flat tire was killed on Hwy. 400.”

In fact, it’s a good idea to stay in the car with the seatbelt on, DiCicco says.

“If a car is hit, it can be pretty violent - so I’d think twice about letting a kid relieve himself,” DiCicco says.

“Again, you have to have a pretty good reason to pull over in the first place,” he says. “If there’s a bee in the car and you’re allergic, open the window or turn on the ventilating system to blow it to the back and take the next side road.”

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com. Canada’s a big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.

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