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If you have ever been a stranded motorist on the side of a busy highway with your hazards blinking and your car inoperable, you have probably wondered about how safe it is to wait there for the tow truck to show up. Until recently, there has been little data regarding the injury patterns of motorists stranded on the side of the road.
A new study that was published just last month analyzed the data on stranded motorist injuries and fatalities in one county in Texas. The aim of the study was to examine the different injury patterns of stranded motorist incidents in relation to mortality, and to the determine the effect of associated risk factors on the injury pattern. (The same researchers had previously studied stranded motorist crashes in the same county back in 2015). Researchers for this more recent study identified a sample of 219 stranded motorist incidents that occurred during a four-year period (2014 – 2018.) These incidents were crashes involving a stationary vehicle where there was a person inside or outside their own vehicle when they were struck by another vehicle.
Of the 219 involved in the study, 61.6% of the stranded motorists suffered nonfatal injuries and 38.4% suffered fatal injuries. Not surprisingly, most of the incidents (73.1%) occurred at night and on roadways where the posted speed limit was 46-65 miles per hour (84.8%). Also, not surprisingly, the risk of serious injury increased when the individual was outside of their vehicle (77.2%) when compared to inside of their vehicle (22.8%). However, when it came to a stationary vehicle being rear-ended, of the 26 individuals inside their vehicles, 17 (94.4%) resulted in a fatality. Most of the injuries involved injury to the head and neck (29.7%) or to the chest (24.2%).
More than half of the stationary vehicles in the study (53.6%) were stopped due to mechanical trouble. Another 22% were stopped due to a secondary incident. Only 9.8% of the 219 individuals injured were either Good Samaritans or a government official who stopped to render some sort of assistance. However, of those who stopped to render assistance and who were injured, 75% of those were fatalities. In addition, stranded motorists who suffered spine-related injuries had a 9.13 times higher risk of a fatal outcome when compared to stranded motorists without spinal injuries.
Slightly more than one third of the individuals involved in the study had toxicology screening or drug panel tests done at the hospital following the collision. Nearly 25% of those individuals had alcohol or Class IV drugs present at the time of the collision.
The results of the study have several safety implications. First, if your patients are stranded in their vehicle on the side of a roadway, and it is safe to do so, they should remove themselves from the vicinity of their vehicle to reduce the chance of injury (for example if on a freeway, they can move over the guardrail and up the embankment). If safely removing themselves from their vehicle is not possible, they should stay inside their vehicle, but with the seatbelt fastened. Also, they should make sure their vehicle is as visible as possible, with hazard lights illuminated.
In Washington State, if a vehicle becomes disabled, the State Patrol recommends the following:
- Pull over to the right shoulder – if you cannot make it to the right shoulder, then to whichever shoulder is closest;
- Turn on your hazard lights;
- Once you are safely off the road it is ok to check the vehicle;
- If the issue is not a simple one (i.e. flat tire, loose spark plug wire), call 911 for assistance.
This study is important as it confirms something we long suspected: the high risk of serious injury and death when it comes to stranded motorists. My law partners and I make it a priority to stay current on research that impacts our understanding of trauma and personal injury cases, as it allows us to better advocate for our clients. If you have any questions concerning this topic, or any other topic we can help you or your patients with, simply give us a call.
 Drake SA, Yang Y, Gao S, Mora S, Garza R, Moore L, Todd SR, Wilson C, Wolf DA. Fatal and Nonfatal Injury Patterns of Stranded Motorists. J Forensic Nurs. 2021 Apr 29. doi: 10.1097/JFN.0000000000000329. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 33929400.