How many hours can someone be stuck in a car?

On Monday there was an accident on NSW’s F3 freeway, which runs from Sydney to Newcastle and is thus a major commuter road. The accident involved two trucks and completely stopped northbound traffic from 11:40am. For various reasons the road was still blocked during the evening peak hour, when northbound is the primary traffic direction. New traffic was forced onto the Old Pacific Highway, which is one lane northbound travelling through many towns, rather than a freeway which is dual carriage with two or three lanes northbound for most of its length. People already on the freeway had a great deal of difficulty getting off it. This is now a major political scandal in NSW.

During this time, many motorists were trapped for a long period of time in their car, and apparently the radio was advising that people not attempt to cross onto the other side of the dual carriageway and return to Sydney, and police were enforcing the rules against U-turns. The SMH reports that some people had an seven hour trip home against a normal hour and a half.

I was struck by the extent to which it seems to be assumed at least by the press and the (obnoxious) commenters on their websites, and quite possibly even by the Roads and Traffic Authority, that spending seven hours in a car without warning is basically an unfortunate experience. That’s a long time without water or a toilet break even for a healthy, abled young adult, but for the (considerably sized) segment of the population which is more vulnerable, this could be a life-threatening situation. Here’s one report the SMH published:

Damien Mueller, from South Australia, said a day at Taronga Zoo with his family turned into a nightmare shortly after arriving on the F3 about 3pm.

“It was about 6.30pm when the kids started getting ill and they were vomiting and dehydrated,” he said.

“I rang the police but he told me there was nothing he could do and if you can fly up the emergency lane, then do it, but I still got stuck.”

Mr Mueller said a truck driver gave his children some water. He eventually arrived home at Rankin Park just before 11pm.

That’s four and a half hours during which his children were ill from lack of water, and the emergency response from police sounds entirely inadequate, placing the onus on the father to get his children out of there and rehydrated if he could do so. (The ambulance service stated that they didn’t receive any calls for help.)

There are several things that stand out to me about this story: dehydration, which is not safe for anyone for many hours, and which is not safe for very young, elderly or sick people at all, is being treated as essentially a matter of personal discomfort; and the general urgency of the emergency response seems to be based on the safety and comfort of the people who are best placed to deal with the problem, people who can if pushed go eight hours or so without fluid (on what was a mild autumn day), rather than the people most at risk.

Was anyone reading stuck on the F3 and if so, was there any attempt to contact or encourage contact from people who were ill or at risk? Because this is striking me as a very serious systemic neglect of the needs of vulnerable people. I’m not surprised as such to find plenty of hints that the treatment of the delayed and trapped drivers and passengers was based on the tolerance of abled, adult, people, but I’m pretty frightened by it.

Categories: law & order, social justice

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4 replies

  1. um… I got stuck that way after pollwatching on Election Day ’08 (US). For, iirc, between three and four hours. Eventually a group got together and backed up their cars just enough to create space for people to start making U-turns and going back down the shoulder to the last exit.
    It was upsetting for me because I had been planning to go home for ten minutes to vote in my own precinct and then coming back. But then I got stuck and started fearing I wouldn’t be able to vote at all. And that vote was highly important to me.
    I was lucky that I was ok on that day, otherwise. It wore the fuck outta me, and I took awhile to recover. Being stuck in the car that long always has physical consequences on my body. But mine is also a disability where I’m not fearing injury or fatality because I got stuck in an unexpected bind.
    It’s hard enough negotiating life where it’s just painful to go through unexpected things — but where it becomes injurious or possibly life-threatening — it’s frustrating. What about someone with diabetes who has to eat at set times and thought they’d be in the car for a half hour at most? And so on…
    People were milling around, out of their cars, when it happened to me. I myself tossed some gatorade and a bag of chips up to the young high schoolers stuck in their school bus when they were chatting with me after I got out of my car (I was right next to them!) and I know one guy walked down the dead-stopped interstate and made sure to speak with every person (well, every driver) to let them know what was going on…

  2. I haven’t been stuck on the F3 for a long time as don’t go up that way as much any more. When we were young (and even now), my mum always packed water and food etc in case there was an accident/delay. Not a comment on the people stranded, more that the F3 has a record of being vulnerable to being blocked off by accidents and traffic and is an ongoing major problem for people traveling north from Sydney. The major delays on a Friday afternoon and at holiday times just serve to highlight that.
    The thought of being stuck in a car for 9 hours fills me with trepidation, bad enough when the traffic is horrible and it takes an extra hour let alone being at a complete stand still for that long (the contraflow system was not put into place until 9 hours after the accident!).
    The SMH is now reporting that the Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) CEO has been stood down –

  3. The idea of being stuck for hours terrifies me – The last time something like that happened around Wash. DC was because of snow, iirc, and some people were stuck for over a day. I need regular medication, and unless I have my scrip bottle with me, I usually only carry a couple in a pill case because of medication regulations in the US (I can get in trouble if I carry a bunch of painkillers in a non-scrip container). If I get stuck without my meds, I’m in trouble. And I can’t take my pills without water, so I need some kind of liquid with me at all times. On a good day, I sometimes forget, let alone if I think I’m just popping out for a quick errand!
    So my husband put together an emergency pack for me, with food, water, and meds, but the responsibility for highway safety shouldn’t be on the shoulders of drivers who might be in someone else’s car, on public transportation, or just caught without supplies, because that’s really, really ableist, and assuming that 1. everyone has and can drive a car of their own, and 2. someone has the resources or ability to carry an emergency bag with them always.

  4. More info:

    Ms Machin also said the RTA had failed to implement another key part of the F3 emergency management plan, which was to quickly distribute bottled water to stranded motorists.

    Presumably this would also allow them to conduct an audit for anyone who was travelling without needed medication, was at higher risk of dehydration, etc. Whether said audit is part of their plan, I don’t know, and since that wasn’t actually done, it wouldn’t be as helpful as it could be.

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