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driving concerns

I read that you're not supposed to pull over on the highway unless it's an emergency because you could get hit. I get that. But what should you do if you see an accident happen or somebody in serious trouble and police aren't there yet? My wife says you should pull over to help. But, if you're not a medical professional, how much help can an ordinary person be? And couldn't you make it worse if you get hit, too? Should you just drive by and call it in? – Tara

If you see an accident on the highway, you should call 911 and report it in as much detail as you can. But you'll have to decide for yourself whether stopping is the best way to be a Good Samaritan, police and paramedics say.

"Deciding to stop and render assistance on the highway is a judgment call that will be made by the driver in the situation – however, from the standpoint of the police, it is never safe to do so," said Constable Melissa Wutke, with B.C. RCMP traffic services, in an e-mail. "In any event, you must call police to report what you saw in as much detail as possible."

If you pull over, your car is in danger of being struck – emergency vehicles get hit with their flashing lights on, Wutke said. And if you get out of the vehicle, you could get struck and killed.

"We have had people who have pulled over to assist who have been struck themselves," said Sergeant Peter Leon, Ontario Provincial Police spokesman. "I think people can assist by calling it in – and if they do pull over, they need to pull over safely."

And, there have been cases in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan, where people stopped to help and had their cars stolen.

But, if you can pull over safely, there's a chance you could help save a life, even if you don't have medical or first-aid training, Toronto Paramedic Services said.

"We do always prefer it if the person calling 911 does stop to help if it is safe to do so," said Kim McKinnon, Toronto Paramedic Services superintendent of public information and media, in an e-mail. "On the highway, that is a tough one. Safety is No. 1 – we don't want more injuries just because someone stopped to help."

If you do stop, the 911 dispatcher can talk you through giving CPR or stanching bleeding until paramedics get there, McKinnon said. "This help can give the patient a better chance of survival."

If you witness an accident – and don't just see the aftermath – you have to call police to tell them what you saw, Wutke said. "If you pull over immediately to report this collision, it is appropriate to dial 911. If it is hours after the collision and you call once you are at your destination, please use the non-emergency line to the police department nearest to where the collision occurred."

But if you do see the immediate aftermath of the accident – or any other situation where someone needs serious help – you should call 911.

In some provinces, including British Columbia and Ontario, you're allowed to use a handheld phone while driving to call 911.

"However, it is always safer to exit the highway and find a safe spot to stop to minimize the risk to yourself," Wutke said.

When you call to report someone in trouble, you should provide as much information as possible. That includes the make, model and colour of the cars involved, how many people are outside their vehicles and where the person is located.

"Make a mental note of where you see the person – if you are able to tell the police dispatcher exactly where the person in distress is located, you can ensure that help gets to them as soon as possible," Wutke said. "Note things such as westbound or eastbound as well as what lane the person is in – advising of the nearest exit or landmark is also helpful."

If you see someone else broken down or needing help, it's better to call police and not the CAA.

"If somebody is in distress, call 911," said Elliott Silverstein, manager, government and community relations for CAA South Central Ontario.

If you do pull over to help – or to call 911 – make sure your four-way flashers are on, Silverstein said.

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