Out of gas in tunnel? Stay calm, and safe

The Baltimore Sun

What do you do if you run out of gas in the middle of the Harbor Tunnel?

This was the question posed to me by a Sun colleague, photographer Barbara Haddock-Taylor, who came distressingly close to experiencing that particular public humiliation. Fortunately, she had just enough fumes to make it to a gas station.

More generally, what do you do when dismal automotive events occur at the worst possible places?

Let us define "worst possible places" as busy traffic bottlenecks where a lack of shoulder space gives any motorist the potential to become a one-person traffic jam -- not to mention a serious hazard to oneself and others. In Maryland, these would include the Fort McHenry Tunnel, the Bay Bridge, the Francis Scott Key Bridge, the Susquehanna River crossings on Interstate 95 and U.S. 40, and the two-lane U.S. 301 crossing of the Potomac.

Anyway, my colleague's question was compelling enough to inspire a call to the Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the state's toll facilities and deals with the consequences when someone runs out of gas, blows a tire, sideswipes another vehicle or does something equally disruptive on a bridge or in a tunnel.

Kelly Melhem, a spokeswoman for the authority, and Cpl. Jonathan Green, a spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, passed along this advice:

If your car becomes incapacitated in a tunnel or on a bridge, "remain in your vehicle, turn on your vehicle's hazard lights and immediately contact local authorities by dialing #77 on your cell phone."

In my words, not the authority's, resist any urge to get out of the car. You're in a dangerous position stalled where you are, but at least you have the passenger compartment of your vehicle between you and disaster. Sit there, trust your flashers, hope the trailing drivers are sober and try to cheerfully endure the abuse you will receive from the motorists forced to pass you in a single lane. Please don't try to change a tire.

Obviously, it would be good if you have a cell phone and remembered to bring it. Green said he believes most cell phone networks will receive signals from the tunnel. Even if you can't call, don't panic. Green said the authority's tunnels and bridges are monitored with cameras and well enough ventilated that you won't be in danger from the fumes. In addition, he said, other motorists will quickly report your plight.

My unofficial advice: If you did run out of gas, try to think up an original excuse. (But don't worry, you won't get a ticket -- as much as you'd deserve one.) And when the "vehicle recovery technician" shows up, don't argue if the priority is to tow your car first and fix your problem later.

Now let's say you're in a tunnel or on the Bay Bridge, and you're involved in a minor collision that leaves you able to proceed. Do you finish going across the bridge or tunnel and then pull over or remain at the scene of the accident?

Here's the official word: "First, confirm that there are no injured parties in any of the vehicles. If there are no injuries (it is unlawful to leave the scene of a personal injury collision) and all vehicles can safely drive off the bridge or out of the tunnel, then all vehicles should drive to the first area of the roadway where all vehicles can safely get off the traveled portion of the roadway. Call 911 and wait for authorities to arrive."

Green said that in most cases, drivers should be able to determine whether occupants of the other vehicle are injured without leaving their own. He acknowledged that in some cases, it could be a judgment call.

"Safety would be the first priority," he said.

If you are involved in a serious-injury collision with multiple vehicles in a tunnel or on a bridge but are not among the injured, the official advice runs thus:

"Remain at the scene, call 911 and render aid if possible. You must do this safely; you have not accomplished anything if you are injured as a result of your efforts," the authority states -- emphasizing once again that you must remain at the scene of the crash.

Green said that in his experience it is "very rare" that a motorist runs out of gas in or on one of the toll facilities. Mechanical breakdowns and collisions are more common, he said.

According to Melhem, authority officials responded to 180 disabled vehicles in just the two tunnels in July.

If you were among these unlucky folks, or if you have ever experienced a similarly ignominious incident in or on one of the authority's toll bridges or tunnels, please pass along your tales of woe in an e-mail.

Rest assured, your fellow Marylanders would love to share in the experience -- vicariously.


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