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driving concerns

My son-in-law ran out of gas on Highway 20 in Dorval, Que. While he was on the shoulder of the road waiting for someone to bring him a gallon of gas, a routier [Quebec highway safety patrol] truck stopped and told him it was illegal to put gas in his car on the side of the road, and he must be towed. He said that if the police came by he would get a $300 fine plus demerits, and anyone who brought him gas would get an $800 fine plus demerits. I've never heard of this and couldn't find anything on the Internet to suggest that this is true. Was this routier guy stringing him a line? – Norm, Montcalm, Que.

Whether you break down, run out of gas or get a flat on highways around Montreal, you're stuck with one choice – you have to get towed.

"That area of Highway 20 is a particularly dangerous place to run out of gas, so if someone does break down, they have to be towed to a gas station by a company that has contracted with the MTQ [Quebec Ministry of Transportation]," said Sgt. Daniel Thibaudeau, spokesman with Sûreté du Québec (SQ). "Several highways in Quebec have been designated exclusive regions for towing, and that is based on safety concerns regarding the configuration of the highway."

If you break down on one of those highways – designated by green signs that show a tow truck and say exclusif – you have to be towed by the company that has the contract for that zone. Each company handles only one zone, so they can arrive quickly – within 15 minutes – along with a routier protection truck with a flashing arrow.

"These tow trucks are rapidly available, whereas if you call the CAA or a friend, the delays could lead to serious injuries or harm," Thibaudeau said. "It's too dangerous to be wandering around outside the car."

That means it's also illegal for that friend to bring gas or booster cables to come to your aid, Thibaudeau said.

Two trucks required

How do you know which tow truck company to call?

You call the police at *4141 and they send a truck to you. There might already be one on the way – MTQ staff monitor highway cameras for stopped vehicles, and ministry trucks patrol the highways, Thibaudeau said.

And if you think it's something you can handle yourself, like putting on the spare tire? If you try to DIY, you could die, a tow truck driver said.

"It is illegal in Quebec to even step out of your vehicle if you stall on our highways. It's extremely dangerous," said Dan Drozda, who works for a Montreal towing company and runs the Facebook page Towing in Canada. "Even us, when we respond to a highway call, we cannot step a foot out of our vehicle until a protection vehicle is behind us blocking the lane."

That protection vehicle has been required in exclusive towing zones since 2006, based on recommendations after the deaths of an SQ officer and a road supervisor who were hit while putting up safety cones after a bus broke down. The extra vehicle nearly doubled the cost of towing to over $100, La Presse reported in 2007.

We asked several Montreal-area towing companies what the rate might be now and didn't get an immediate answer.

Everywhere else

If you break down on any other highway in Quebec, the safest thing to do is to call police, roadside assistance or a tow truck instead of a buddy, Thibaudeau said.

You're not supposed to walk along the highway, and neither is your buddy with the jerrycan, Thibaudeau said.

"It's a $15 fine," he said. "It's a small fine, but it's a matter of safety."

The Société de l'assurance automobile du Quebec (SAAQ), a Crown corporation responsible for licensing drivers and vehicles, said in an e-mail that it recommends planning ahead to make sure you have enough gas in your car.

If your car does break down, slow down and get to the shoulder or as far right as you can. Put on your hazard lights and stay in your car until emergency services arrive.

"If there is a risk of collision, leave the vehicle, lift the hood and proceed to a safe place," the SAAQ said.

We checked the other provinces and didn't find any bans on filling up with gas or changing a flat tire on the highway.

But in Ontario, for instance, it's illegal to walk on most parts of the 400-series highways.

And it's dangerous anywhere – in 2015, a 22-year-old man was killed when he was struck by a semi while changing a tire on Highway 16 in Saskatchewan. Also in 2015, a 46-year-old Toronto man was killed while changing a tire on Highway 400.

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