Stay in the car!
Neighbors Missy and Beth were heading home after playing pickleball at a school gymnasium. They’d traveled this stretch of their county road together a hundred times over the years. But this drizzly morning was going to be like none before.
With their homes almost in sight, they topped a hill. Suddenly, three deer lept into the roadway from an adjacent cornfield. Startled, Beth slammed on the brakes and veered to avoid them, but her tires slid on the wet pavement. Into the roadside ditch the SUV went, stopping with a thud. Its rear end came to rest against one of the utility poles lining the road.
Both women were unhurt. They hugged in relief. Then, they did something that could have turned this property damage accident into multiple fatalities: They stepped out of the car.
“Stay in the car, stay in the car, stay in the car!”
Whenever a power line is involved, even a minor accident can become tragic. Staying put for all involved, and warning passersby to stay away, too, cannot be stressed enough. Do not get out until after first responders and/or utility workers arrive on the scene and say it’s OK to do so.
Staying put may go against a driver’s first inclination. You want to get out and check the car. But stepping out of the car immediately after striking a utility pole may KILL YOU. Here’s why:
- Power lines can fall. When a pole is struck, power lines and hardware can break loose from their insulated perches atop the pole.
- Fallen power lines can still be energized. Even touching the ground, power lines can be carrying 7,200 volts or more. They may not spark or buzz.
- Fallen power lines are hard to see. When knocked down and twisted with tall grass or trees as a background, especially at night, power lines are almost impossible to see.
- Electricity seeks the quickest path to ground. If you get out of the car and touch a live power line and the ground, you become that path. That amount of electricity passing through you can kill you instantly.
- If you are alive, you are safe. Immediately after a collision with a utility pole, you may not know if power lines have broken loose and are on your car. But if you are alive, you are not that deadly “path to ground.” If you were in that path, you’d already be dead. Stay put and stay safe.
- Call 911. After hitting a pole, call 911. Tell them you hit a pole and wait patiently. Tell passersby to stay back. First responders will see if power lines are down. If lines are down, they will call and wait on the utility’s responders to arrive before they can even approach the car.
Beth and Missy were fortunate. The impact didn’t break the pole or damage its hardware; the wires held tight. Had they fallen, the two women probably never would have known what hit them — and killed them.
Making a safe escape from downed power lines
If your car comes in contact with a utility pole, power lines may have fallen. If that happens, stay in the car and call for help. A fallen power line could still be energized and could be energizing your car. If you step from the car, you could become electricity’s path to ground and be electrocuted.
Only if the accident has caused a fire or there is another immediate threat to your safety should you exit the car. To be safe, here is how you must exit:
- Open the door without touching the metal of the door frame.
- With both feet together, hop out and away from the vehicle so no part of your body touches the vehicle and the ground at the same time. Maintain your balance.
- Keeping your feet together, slowly shuffle away so the toe of one foot moves forward along the length of the other foot. Keep both feet in constant contact and always touching the ground.
- Keep shuffling 30 or more feet until you are away from the car and power line.
- Be watchful for low-hanging power lines or lines on the ground.
What to do if you hit a utility pole
If your vehicle comes in contact with a utility pole or a downed power line, the most important thing is to stay inside the car! Stepping out could electrocute you if your car is touching energized lines. While you wait for help:
- DO gather your wits.
- DON’T open the car door or reach out the window.
- DO call 911 if you have your cell phone. Tell them you’ve struck a utility pole and power lines may have fallen.
- DO tell passersby to stay back. They might walk right into a fallen energized line.