Warning Others of a Breakdown

Breakdown Warning DevicesWhat do you have stored in your vehicle to protect yourself in the event of a breakdown or collision? Most of us will probably reply that they don't have anything prepared for this eventuality. In fact, with the reliability of vehicles today and perhaps not having been involved in a significant collision before, we may be lulled into thinking that we don't really need it.

An Example of Failing to Warn Other Drivers

Cole Notter may have felt this way. He's the subject of a court case where he was involved in a single vehicle collision and left his black Kia sitting across one lane of highway 1 east of Chilliwack, at night, with no lights on and did nothing to protect others.

Others stopped to offer assistance, parking on the opposite side of the road with their hazard flashers on.

Edward Godbout approached the scene driving a loaded tractor trailer unit. Thinking that the hazard involved the vehicle with the hazard flashers on, Mr. Godbout changed lanes away from it. He failed to see the Kia in time and was unable to avoid a collision.

That collision left Mr. Godbout's truck and trailer laying on it's side in the median and the load of scrap metal strewn across the westbound lanes.

Mr. Justice Jenkins found Notter to be 100% liable for the collision involving Godbout because he had done nothing to warn others of the hazard that he had created. The settlement amounted to almost $600,000.

Mandatory for Motorhomes and Commercial Vehicles

Section 207 MVA requires that motor homes and commercial vehicles with a seating capacity of more than 10 passengers or an overall width greater than 2.3 meters (about 7' 6") must carry at least two approved warning devices in the driver's compartment.

While it may not be mandatory, it is still a good idea to equip your vehicle with breakdown warnings to protect both yourself, your passengers and other road users.

Breakdown Warning Devices Are Not Expensive

A set of breakdown warnings is not a significant expense. Shop carefully and you can equip yourself well for less than the cost of an oil change.

examples of highway breakdown warning devices

Placement of Breakdown Warnings

If you ever need to use your breakdown warnings, a bit of thought is in order for their deployment. The higher the speed, the further away the first warning should be placed from the scene. Remember that drivers need to see the warning, decide that they need to do something and then do it, all before they arrive at the difficulty.

Our freeways may have posted speeds of 120 km/h or just over 33 m/s. 4 seconds for perception and reaction is not out of the question and means that more than 120 meters has been travelled before the driver applies the brakes. If it's slippery, the braking distance could be significant too.

Hills, curves and multiple lanes may require extra warnings so I would suggest that a minimum of three devices would be wise to have.

Waiting for Help After a Breakdown

If you break down and put out your warnings, staying in the vehicle may not be a good idea. Waiting well off the roadway is the safest choice. Of course, sometimes weather or other conditions may not permit this, but think twice about remaining closer to traffic than you really need to.

You may never need to use breakdown warnings to protect yourself or others but this case is a great example of what a bit of thought and a few dollars in safety equipment could save.

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A lot of us have helped someone with a dead battery by "jump starting" their vehicle with jumper cables.

On a dark rainy night, broken down vehicle stopped on the shoulder of the roadway, a helpful passing motorist or a friend summoned pulls nose to nose up to the disabled vehicle.

In your mind,,,, the disabled vehicle is parked facing the same way traffic is flowing on the shoulder of that side of the roadway and the helpful motorist/friend is facing traffic on the wrong side of the road on the same shoulder of the road.  Not a big deal ?  Right ?

With today's vehicles, even if you turn off your headlights, your daytime running lights remain on.  Yes, if you think of it, some vehicles, can be run if the vehicle is started with the emergency brake engaged, but in our scenario, it's dark and rainy, likely some light is needed.

While the jumping is being conducted,,, what do we have ?  headlights on the extreme wrong side of the roadway.  Depending on the location of the two vehicles in relation to each other and the height of the vehicles, white headlights could be expected to be shinning toward oncome traffic on their side of the roadway.

This happened on the outskirts of Lumby BC, the on-coming vehicle's driver became confused and swerved to the right of the headlights, driving off the roadway.

Yes, the helpful motorist/friend is now liable for the collision.

Love this article! You can buy foldable triangular warning signs for very few dollars that take up very little space. As a commercial driver in the ’70’s, I very nearly had the same experience as Mr. Goodbout just east of Hinton, AB.

Just looked it up Canadian tires have folding emergency triangles on for 10.00 and electronic flashing flares for 22.00.

Have to admit I drove for several years with nothing. Then starting my own company and taking a first aid course around the same time I saw the merit in them. In first aid you are told to secure the area. Can't provide much help when you are now part of the accident scene.

It wouldn't hurt that when you take your drivers written test that you are also given one regarding being first on the scene of an accident. This information could also be included with your insurance when you re-new. Everything depends on the number of people with you and how many on the scene but the first priority should be getting those triangles and flares out for other drivers. One should also park several meters away. Take the moderators advice and park 100 - 150 meters away with 4 way flashers, triangles and flares.

I find it so often when you come across an accident the first vehicles that arrive like to park beside the accident. Then they meander like cattle on the road. 

I understand the problem of jump starting. One can stand in front of the offending headlight when you see a car coming. Another thing that would help is to put your lights on low beam if you haven't already done. Suprising the number you see that do not dim headlights. And once you are connected you can turn on the four way flashers.

Complaint against emergency vehicles and their drivers. Put your low beams on or even use parking lights if conditions permit. Light bars. The LED lights are now so bright that they are blinding. Should be equipped with a lower intensity light once darkness arrives. And one of the stupidest idea is that of the alternating low/high beams flashings. When you talk to emergency personnel they have numerous complaints against the other drivers. First they complain that they do not slow down like they are suppose to, then in the next sentence the complaint is everyone wants to go so slow and gawk at the accident. Please get your stories straight. And please think of the other drivers and not try to blind them with bright lights.

I will be purchasing those electronic flares next time I am in a auto parts store. Excellent idea and way better than the flares I have now.

Here is a link to a video made of a car hitting a pick-up

This is a good example of not securing the scene of the accident.

There is no excuse for the driver of the car having the accident in the first place but we have a tow truck driver not bothering to mark the accident and the people originally involved also failing to take action. They had phoned for a tow truck and if they had any emergency equipment with them that should have been put out.

In the case of the tow truck driver his first priority should have been to put out emergency markings. He had driven by the scene and knew there was nothing out. Instead he talked to the people involved in the accident and then proceeded to call the OPP to report the accident. Whether or not his own emergency lights could be seen over the canopy of the pick-up is not really as issue. Markers should have been established on the ground giving other motorist a warning of problems ahead.

Thankfully no one was killed. But this is a good example of not what to do.

In BC, vehicles in the Class 1, 2, 3, 4U category are required to carry such safety devices as a Fire Extinguishers First Aid kit, and devices such as Flags or Flares (the 3 F's) though the latter will these days typically be approved Reflectors. 

Generally speaking, the extinguisher and first aid kit will remain unused; but it's not uncommon to see those triangular Reflectors (there will usually be three in the red container) set up somewhere behind a stalled vehicle. Sometimes a city bus, other times a semi. And yet, every time in my living memory, the driver has erected those things within a few meters of the rear of his/her stationary vehicle.  And they think they're  'professional' drivers?

The rules require that the Reflectors be placed 30 meters ahead and behind the vehicle (that's ten big strides) and suggest that the other one be placed 60 meters or more behind the vehicle, to properly mark it as stopped (on or off the roadway).

There's no point in having safety devices (including hazard lights), if people don't know when, where, and how to use them.

I always looked at this only from the point of view of the MVA and MVAR. There may be other rules set by WorkSafeBC that I am unaware of.

Advanced warnings for commercial vehicles depend on width or passenger seating capacity. A minium of 2 are required and during darkness they are required to be placed one 30m to the front and one 30m to the rear of the disabled vehicle. This may be totally inadequate on high speed roads where curves or hills are involved.

Fire extinguishers are required for vehicles that carry explosive cargo and commercial passenger vehicles with a seating capacity of 10 or more.

The first aid kit requirement is also for passenger vehicles with a seating capacity of 10 or more.

Many years back, I remember on a very dark and rainy, stormy night driving as briskly as seemed safe up the canyon with my friend Neil; remarkably, a guy in a camper truck passed us on one section, despite the terrible visibility.

After a few more turns in the highway, we saw something that only ever seems to occur on warning signs - a rock hazard! The darned cliff had broken away higher up, and some very large chunks of dark wet rock had landed over much of the roadway in our lane. The guy in the camper truck had stuffed his grill into the largest one, he wasn't going anywhere else that night, but they were OK in that vehicle.

But more to the point, there were quite a few cars and trucks using that highway that night, zero lighting, and only half a highway that could still be used.

So we re-postioned our van transversely across the blocked lane with all lights on and flashing, threw our black jackets in it (because we were wearing white T-shirts) and 'took over' that piece of Hwy 12 as 'flagpersons' at each end of the scene. 

Remarkably, though each of us were at transverse times shutting down traffic in each direction on a highway, as needed to guide all these drivers through the remaining clear roadway (there were chunks of basalt or whatever all over the place on the cliff side), we managed to keep the scene safe and moving. When a passing truck driver offered some of his flares, that made things easier; the cops showed up eventually - took them a while though (we'd asked truck drivers going by to get hold of them via CB Radio).


Meanwhile, even earlier than that, I was working as a truck driver for a company based in Winnipeg, in totally different conditions. Summertime, and over 110 in the shade. There was a flatbed trailer that had just been dropped in the yard, and as I recall it had those paper sacks of lime as a load; whatever it was, it damn well spontaneously combusted right there. Or maybe someone threw a cigarette butt, we all smoked back then. Just a few flames at first, and I quickly grabbed a nearby extinguisher in the warehouse and jumped up onto the trailer to put the fire out. The extinguisher didn't work; but somebody else, seeing this, tossed me another one. Didn't work for more than a few seconds. By the time I got a properly working fire extinguisher, and could put out the burning sacks on the trailer, I was also putting out my own jeans.


I only mention this stuff, because when you do need emergency equipment, you need it to work, you need it now, and you need to realize how best to use it.

We were coming home from Nanaimo in heavy rain and came across an accident which we did not witness but clearly had only just occurred.  A vehicle appeared to have spun out of control on the very wet road and was turned around, the front end smashed in etc.  A man was flagging down traffic to advise people to slow down and a couple of other cars had stopped.  Since my husband is First Aid trained through Rescue Team involvement he said to me he thought he should stop and offer help, which he did and coincidentally found that one of the other people who had stopped to offer assistance was a Team colleague of his, who is actually a paramedic and they together attended to an injured person until the ambulances arrived.

When my husband offered to help my first thought was for his safety, getting out of the car on a wet road in a 120 kph. speed zone.  Then I had misgivings about my own safety, left in a car at the side of the road, but realised that he had done the right thing by stopping ahead of the accident whereby traffic moving by had then slowed considerably.

The things I learned here were -   that the man flagging down traffic was at risk; he had dark clothing and was ahead of the accident where traffic was still flowing fast.

  • as well as emergency and first aid gear in the car it would be wise to have a reflective vest and cone
  • stopping in front of the accident was safer than behind for the reason mentioned above
  • no matter how skilled one is at first aid it is essential to consider how one would use those skills in less than ideal situations – heavy rain, darkness, roadside etc.?

It’s not until you are in the situation that you discover how well prepared you are (or not) for any eventuality.  Incidentally we have all this emergency gear in the car for any type of emergency – heavy footwear for possibly walking in broken glass etc. medical supplies, emergency food and shelter (all this is from our earthquake preparedness training).