Date Posted

December 23, 2020

Dave Elniski
Safety Officer
Caveman Transport Ltd.
Lethbridge, AB

Back in 2019, I was trucking a load of hay into Saskatchewan. En route, I was stopped at a small town railway crossing when a car failed to stop for an oncoming train. 

The car crossed the tracks right in front of the freight train and was flung across the roadway and into a ditch, where it lay smoking and rocking on its roof. 

Being close to train tracks and knowing that emergency services would need to access the scene, I fought the urge to jump out and help, and instead moved my rig to a safe location with the hazard lights on. Then, I put on my headset and dialed 911, donned a high visibility jacket, grabbed my first aid kit and headed to the struck car. 

There was a crowd of people gathered around the car and given the grim condition of the lone occupant , emotions were running high. I was able to tell the 911 dispatcher where we were and the condition of the car and its driver and did what first aid I could until emergency services arrived and took over. 

This wasn’t the first time I have been one of the first on the scene for a serious collision, and I have accepted the fact I am more likely than the average person to encounter such things considering I am a truck driver. It is not a pleasant experience, but it is a situation for which someone can prepare, and that is what I will be discussing today.

I won’t be covering the general liability-related what-to-dos for when you are involved in a collision (such as writing statements, taking pictures, preparing for an insurance claim, etc.); this topic can be easily researched online by looking at insurance websites. I will also be writing for an audience who would be willing to help in such a situation but has limited to no formal training in emergency response. So, if you have received advanced training in this topic please follow your training. 

My focus here is what an average driver can do to prepare themselves and their vehicle for the possibility of being a first responder to a collision, and I will do this by discussing: 

  • the first steps to responding safely to a collision; 
  • what equipment you can keep accessible in your vehicle, and; 
  • what you can do afterwards to protect your mental health. 

Responding Safely to a Collison 

In addition to being a truck driver, I’m a reserve soldier in the Canadian Armed Forces, and my military trade is artillery. 

Like most military training, there is an emphasis on speed when learning to be an effective member of an artillery crew. However, when an artillery gun is in the process of firing, a crew often looks quite calm and relaxed. Everybody knows what they have to be doing, and actions are slow and deliberate so that errors are not made. 

A slow and steady approach is important when the stakes are high. For example, there is a rule in the Canadian artillery to never run while carrying ammunition. When everyone is yelling and the crew is trying to make a tight timing, I’ll admit I find it difficult to slow down and walk with ammunition, but it does make sense: a lot of bad things could happen if people start tripping and stumbling while carrying explosives. 

Relatedly, a favourite expression of mine I first heard in the army is “slow is smooth, smooth is fast”. This is why it is important, when time is in short supply, to take a little more of it and be careful and deliberate in your actions. The first thing I do when I am about to enter a difficult situation is take some deep breaths and ask myself what I need to handle it as best I can. 

This is the first thing to do when responding to a collision. The first step isn’t to run out to the scene, because you need to know what to bring to the scene. Is your vehicle in a safe location? Are you blocking emergency responders? What supplies do you need? 

All incidents and emergencies differ from one another, so a detailed step-by-step guide on what to do isn’t practical here. However, by taking a moment to assess the situation before leaving your car, you can do your best with what you have while also keeping yourself — and anyone else in the vehicle with you — safe. 

So, before reaching for those four things I’m going to discuss soon, here is how to respond to a collision while you are still in your car: 

Is the hazard that led to the collision still present? 

In the case of the story I opened with, I had to make sure that I was clear of the road and train tracks with my vehicle safely out of the way before I could think about approaching the car. 

What is needed to keep you and the occupants of your vehicle safe? 

If you are the only one in your vehicle, in good physical health, with good clothing for the weather, you may be quick to respond to help others. 

However, if you have personal health concerns or perhaps have small children in your vehicle, you must make the wellbeing of yourself and your passengers central in whatever you decide to do. 

Is the scene safe and accessible to emergency responders? 

Make sure your hazard lights are on, your vehicle out of danger, and that emergency responders have access to the scene before doing much of anything else. 

Each of the above steps are related to each other and all involve taking a bit of time to respond to what is going on around you instead of wildly reacting and running into a situation for which you are not prepared. The point is to understand what is going on so that your actions help instead of hinder rescue efforts. 

Imagine trying to perform first aid on someone with life threatening injuries without your first aid kit because you forgot to grab it before running to the scene, and then being told you need to move your car so the ambulance can get to the victim. While your intentions in this case may be wonderfully altruistic, such actions may actually hurt more than help. 

Now we’ll move onto the four items I think should be within arm’s reach of the driver’s seat. 

Four things I have within easy reach 

I think it is reasonable for all drivers on the road to have some basic emergency supplies in their vehicle. I’ll keep it simple here and focus on four collision response items, but I applaud anyone who takes the time to outfit their vehicles with other tools and supplies for emergencies: 

  1. A First Aid Kit 

Never perform a first aid treatment if you don’t know what you are doing! 

If you don’t know what to do, wait for emergency services to take over. You can do your best to comfort those who are injured or excited, but when it comes to first aid, only do what you are both trained and comfortable doing. I recommend making first aid training a high priority for yourself as it is a great skill set to have at home or at work. 

The first aid kit you carry close to your seat in the car should be made up of supplies that make sense for injuries you’re likely to see in a collision, such as large dressings, triangular bandages, roller gauze, and tape. Shock, a life-threatening condition where the blood flow is lost to the extremities as the body attempts to preserve vital organs, is common when people have suffered traumatic injuries, and part of the treatment for shock is to keep the casualty warm and in a comfortable position, so your first aid kit should include a blanket such as a space-saving reflective one. 

What else to include in your first aid kit depends on your training and how long you think it will take for emergency medical help to arrive, so a kit for a trained first aider in remote areas will be larger and more comprehensive than a kit for urban areas. The emphasis here is to treat large, obvious injuries and to keep the victim comfortable until medical help can arrive (although you can add whatever you want for your own personal needs). 

You must have personal protective equipment (PPE) in your first aid kit. This is perhaps the most important thing to carry: you need to protect your own health first. Several pairs of disposable gloves, hand sanitizer, and a barrier device for performing artificial respiration in your first aid kit (if trained in this skill) can reduce the chance of picking up someone else’s diseases, and as we are in the time of COVID-19 a face mask should be carried too. 

All of these items can be easily found in many pre-assembled first aid kits, although you’ll likely want to go through your kit to tailor it to your region and abilities. Everything should be in a single durable case with a handle so that you can grab it quickly and respond when needed. 

Finally, this first aid kit needs to be inspected at least annually to make sure its contents are still in good condition. 

  1. A Charged Cell Phone

Nowadays you’d be hard-pressed to find a car owner who is also not a cell phone owner, so I expect most people have this item covered. You should have a charger for your phone in your car too, and leave your phone plugged in while driving so it is ready to go in an emergency. The purpose of the phone is to allow you to call 911 to direct emergency responders to the collision scene, and a 911 dispatcher may ask you to stay on the line for a long time.

In areas without cell phone reception this item will be of less value, so you’ll need to come up with a different way of getting help. It may be flagging down another driver or using alternate forms of communication (such as a VHF, CB radio, or a satellite phone), and if you frequent such areas it is worth looking into other communication options. However, unless you are in a truly remote location there will be either cell phone reception or other drivers that can be sent for help. 

  1. High Visibility Vest

When it comes to roadside safety, you need to be visible. 

Once you have stopped in a safe location, make your vehicle visible by turning on the four-way flashing lights and use road flares and reflectors as needed, but before leaving your vehicle be sure to put on a hi-visibility vest. Such garments are easily found at many locations, are not expensive, and are often adjustable to fit over your outer clothing. There is not much point in wearing a reflective vest if you put a dark coat over top of it for warmth, so make sure the vest is big enough to fit over other layers. 

This piece of safety equipment should be made out of brightly-coloured material and should also have reflective strips on it to help other drivers see you with their own lights. If used a lot, this type of item can get dirty and less effective, so if your vest is dirty and no longer reflective it is time for a new one. 

  1. Clothing for the Weather

Heading out for a drive in a snowstorm in shorts and a t-shirt is a recipe for personal disaster. Maybe it’s my history of driving old vehicles talking, but I do not believe in treating a car’s climate control system as a given. Extreme heat and cold kill, so be prepared. 

I won’t go into detail for everything you should carry for every situation, but you should consider your feet, hands, head and core when you plan on emergency clothing for your drive and make sure these items are accessible to you and not buried deep in a bag. You’ll need them as soon as you leave the car if the weather is severe and will want to get them on before your reflective vest. 

Why do these need to be within arm’s reach? The answer should be obvious: ease of access. It can be difficult to take the time to safely respond to a collision and prepare yourself, and the harder to access your emergency equipment is, the harder it will be to resist the temptation to gather it before running to the scene to see what help is needed. 

The goal here is to be able to gather these supplies so easily that it requires little thought. Once these things have been put on and grabbed, you can now focus on helping others while keeping yourself safe. If these things are buried in your trunk underneath luggage and the spare tire, precious time will be lost in your response. 

After the Collision: The After Action Review 

Another routine I came to appreciate in the military was the afteraction review (AAR). The purpose of the AAR was to review what went well and what went poorly after a particular part of training while it was still fresh in everyone’s minds. 

I enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on my conduct and analyze my own strengths and weaknesses and find the principle of the AAR to be applicable to any stressful event. When I don’t take the time to debrief myself to myself, I often feel that the event is incomplete in some fundamental way. When I do a personal AAR after a stressful event, I am able to critique myself, see what I could have done better, and process what has occurred. 

After that aforementioned collision in Saskatchewan, I was forgivably shaken. I had not intended for that drive to be anything other than a routine, relaxing trip but that preconception was shattered the moment the train hit that car. 

Once I had been given the all-clear to leave from the police, I took a moment in the truck to calm down and made sure I had everything back in its place before continuing down the road. That night I took some time to think about the incident in greater detail, specifically my actions. During this process I came to see that I did everything within my power to help, and that the overall outcome was, in a way, irrelevant to me because I had done everything possible. 

Of course I hope for the best in such situations, but during such times I appreciate the ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus’ assertion that there are things that we can control and things we cannot control. I find a lot of comfort in this truth, and if I know that I acted reasonably and did everything as best I could in accordance within my integrity, then I can sleep well knowing that, regardless of the outcome, I have done my part. 

I highly recommend a personal review after any emotionally-charged event, ideally within the first 24 hours afterwards. It can be as simple as five minutes alone thinking about what happened, although there is also great benefit in journaling, talking to trusted people, and seeking professional help. 

Such times in our lives can give us tremendous insight into our characters: now we no longer have to wonder how we will react in such a situation because we are able to observe ourselves in action. Even if we do not like everything we see in ourselves, the path to improvement becomes clearest when our honest actions under pressure are revealed. 

In conclusion, a much shorter version of this article could quickly describe the four items I discussed above and the rationale behind them. A much shorter version might be read by more people. But in a much shorter version I’m not sure I would be able to explain how we should approach stressful situations and like collisions and what we should do afterwards, which is ultimately what I am most interested in sharing. 

Our attitude determines our safety. Our attitude determines how we respond. People who calmly and effectively respond to dangerous, life-threatening situations cut through the darkness of mass-panic like a spotlight. Such people are not mystical or superhuman: they are ordinary people who take the time to think about their surroundings before acting, making the most of what they have on hand. 

I have been caught up in hysteria and panic and then seen someone with a calm, level head take charge, and such a person has the power to change outcomes and spread their calm to others through their presence alone. 

If you can take the time to think before acting, prepare by carrying reasonable equipment in accessible locations, and then take time again to think about your actions and process your feelings, you will be prepared for life’s tests. The wonderful thing about all this is that no one is asking for perfection, only good action, and the feeling that comes from doing everything you could to help someone in need is a deep, steady joy that can be built upon, and never really goes away.