Lessons Learned on the Hard Shoulder of the M5 Motorway

by JoHarrington

There are times when you discover how resourceful you can be. Even by my standards, this one was desperate.

The telephone died in my hand. I had no idea if I'd been heard, against the backdrop of traffic, thundering at speed, just feet away from me.

I couldn't hear what the breakdown recovery operator had said to me. The only clue that I'd been speaking with a real person (and not a machine) was in random words that had crept through between the roar of lorries.

Was anyone coming? Did those worrying about me know where I was? There was little to do now but trust that my decisions thus far had been enough. This was getting dangerous.

But at least it wasn't raining.

Be Careful What You Wish For...

It might come true; and then what are you going to do?

It had been raining for most of the week.  This was the first time that my boots were actually dry, though they hadn't been earlier.

The pilgrim town of Glastonbury had done its job.  After a few days there, I was so calm and happy.  My last stop had been in the White Spring Temple, where water flooded the floor in sacred gulleys and streams.

In retrospect, I should have been meditating at the shrine of Gwyn ap Nydd.  Instead, I'd sat there with my feet in a pool, musing wistfully on the fact that I didn't want to leave Glastonbury.

Stranded now on the hard shoulder of the M5 motorway, I had plenty of time to wonder if the antlered King of the Tylwyth Teg was teaching me to focus. 

After all, if it wasn't for the sheer embankment towering above me, I'd be able to see the Tor from here; and the Wild Hunt would most certainly be on.

Read More About Gwyn ap Nudd on Wikipedia

Gwyn ap Nudd is a Welsh mythological figure, the king of the Tylwyth Teg or "fair folk" and ruler of the Welsh Otherworld, Annwn.

Described as a great warrior with a "blackened face", Gwyn is intimately associated with the otherworld in medieval Welsh literature, and is associated with the international tradition of the Wild Hunt.

Gwyn is the son of Nudd (otherwise known as Lludd) and is consequently grandson to Beli Mawr...

Not a Great Place to Break Down in a Car

The M5 motorway in Somerset has a lot going for it. As a location to lose power in your car, it couldn't get much worse.

I had only been on the motorway for five minutes, when the loud ticking started. I'd travelled across Sedgemoor in perfect bliss and a vehicle that purred like a kitten.

Now, just when I was puzzling over whether the noise was part of the music that was blaring out, I received confirmation that it was not.  The Vauxhall Zafira juddered around me, and the engine lost all power. 

This is a bit of a problem, when you're doing eighty miles per hour in the middle lane of a busy motorway.

I signalled, grateful for the fact that I hadn't actually stopped, then moved across the lane.  I came to a shuddering stop on the hard shoulder. 

A light on the dashboard showed a picture of a car bisected with an oversized spanner.  It didn't take a genius to know that this translated as, 'Oh dear! This car needs fixing.'

I jumped out of the car, quickly checking all of the tyres (it had felt like a mini blow out), while traffic zoomed just inches away.  There was nothing obviously wrong that I could see, but I'm no mechanic.

I reached back in to grab my handbag and noticed that the light had gone again.  Was this a temporary glitch? 

An experimental drive along the hard shoulder saw nothing untoward.  I decided to risk it, in order to drive to the next junction or service station.  I picked up speed, signalled and moved back into traffic.

This was just in time for the engine to fail again.  I lost momentum instantly to the sound of a screaming horn.  A car, traveling way too fast, filled my rear view mirror and I don't know how we didn't crash.

I'd swerved, sharply, back onto the hard shoulder.  No question now of limping on.  I took my belongings and clambered up the embankment.  Down below, my stricken car was vulnerable to fast moving traffic.  It ticked away with hazard lights, swaying when the trucks flew by.

As for me, I was safe enough for now; but there was no way forward and the sun was dipping towards the horizon in the west. All I could do was work out how to summon help.

Is There Anybody Out There?

Summoning help isn't always as straight-forward as it may seem.

It should have been so simple.  I am a member of the AA - an automobile recovery service - and the whole point of paying that annual fee is for moments like this.

I whipped my 'phone out of my bag and scurried through my purse for my membership card. One quick call and all should be well.

But my 'phone hadn't been charged all week.  It was down to the tiniest sliver of life and, as I stared at it, the legend flashed back, 'Battery Low!'  

There was a second consideration too, I am partially deaf.  In this place of loud, thundering noise, I am completely deaf.

Unilateral hearing affects a significant percentage of the population. How would you welcome a client or guest with this kind of deafness?
Alarms in your house warn of anything from a fire to a burglary. But what if the only person there is hearing impaired?

In a quiet country lane, the AA would have been the first to know of my predicament.  Halfway up a motorway embankment, with my 'phone ready to die, I had to be a little more savvy about this.

The important point was to get the message out there somewhere, that I had broken down and where that had occurred. I called my mother.  She has my AA details.  She knows I'm deaf.  No wasting time on explaining either of those points. 

I knew that she had answered, because the digital window told me so.  I heard nothing.  I yelled into the 'phone what had happened and where I was.  Then hung up.  There was still battery life.  I wrote a text with the same details and sent it to her.

She responded, via text, "Have you called the AA?"  

I was doing that next.  There was no way of knowing if I was talking to something automated or a real person.  I just kept shouting into the speaker every detail I thought might be relevant:

  • My location;
  • My car registration number, color and make;
  • My name and address;
  • The fact that I was a woman traveling alone.

The latter shouldn't make a difference, but it did let them know that there were no dogs or children involved. I also heard somewhere that lone women are prioritized and I really felt like being prioritized right then.

Occasionally, in the rare gaps between vehicles, I heard odd words - 'stay', 'color', 'control' and other such disparate things. 

I hung up, as another text came through from my mother.  'You're at junction 16?'   No!  I was between 22 and 21!  I hurriedly texted that information back, as the 'phone's battery finally gave up.

I didn't know if she'd received it.  I didn't know if the AA had heard a word I said.  I stood on the side of the motorway knowing that there was no way I could just walk away to safety.  The only means of communication that I had left were telepathy and prayer.

I opted for the latter.  Elen Llwyddog, helpu fi.

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These are all things which I wished that I possessed at the time. Any of them would have provided me with the means of communication.

What To Do If Your Vehicle Breaks Down on the Motorway

It might not seem too dangerous, when you're perched halfway up an embankment. But make no mistake, it is.

Later on, when my 'phone was charged and all of the missed messages came through, there was a long one from the AA. 

A calmly spoken man carefully went through the safety procedures.

Apparently I was prioritized, not merely because I was a lone woman, but where I was.  A note on my record stated that I couldn't hear the advice that he was giving me now.

It didn't really matter.  I'd already told myself.

While not uncommon, vehicles on the hard shoulder are not supposed to be there.  The fact of them means that there is a story attached, which passing drivers will glance at to determine.  It's the old rubber-necking phenomenon causing a loss of concentration on the road ahead.

Moreover, any car going out of control will be steered towards the hard shoulder (as I did with mine).  That is not a driver who can swerve around you.

All of this is happening at fast speeds, which do not allow even the greatest drivers to react quickly enough.  More accidents than you would imagine occur on the hard shoulder because of these reasons.  Over 90% are caused through visual distractions like, say, a car parked on the hard shoulder.

So what should you do if you find yourself in my situation?

  1. Park as close to the embankment as possible;
  2. Turn your hazard lights on;
  3. Open the passenger side door (away from traffic) and get out;
  4. Get behind the barrier or, if there is no barrier (as with my location), climb the embankment;
  5. Look back at the hard shoulder, make a note of the number on the nearest pole - it will locate you precisely to the nearest ten yards;
  6. Summon help from a place of personal safety;
  7. Do not return to your car.

I failed on number seven.  It was freezing up there, as the sun started to go down.  I went back for my coat!

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The First Rescue

Little girl lost; panthers; eternities; and a knight in a Weston pick up truck.

I may have been prioritized, but it felt like a million years standing there waiting.  Were they even coming?  Had my mother called the AA and sent them miles away to junction 16 in Gloucestershire? 

Peering down the embankment, along the motorway, I could see an SOS telephone about half a mile away.  Walking to it meant a prolonged period strolling down the hard shoulder.  It meant leaving my car, when someone could have been coming to get me.  It meant trying to have a conversation while deafened by the traffic.

I stayed put. It was the right thing to do.

I saw an AA van approaching and waved like a lunatic on the spot.  It sailed right by.  An eternity later, the same thing happened again.  But this time, the driver did flash his lights.

I learned later that, even with my limited resources, I had actually summoned help four times.  My mother had placed the call.  The operator had understood all that I'd said to him or her.  Both AA mechanics had logged my situation, but they couldn't stop as they were answering other alarms.  They would have come back.

Meanwhile, I had another pressing concern.  As I sat there, something moved behind me.  I saw it happen out of the corner of my eye. I twisted around, but nothing was there. Maybe it had been the shadow of a bird or some passing stoat.  I don't know.  But my mind said 'panther'.

I'd just come off Sedgemoor.  The Glastonbury newspapers had been filled all week with headlines about a panther spotted over there!   Your mind does strange things to you, when all you have to go on is a shadow!

It was growing dark when a recovery van signaled and pulled in behind me.  I danced up onto my feet in relief, but it wasn't an AA van.  They'd dispatched a local mechanic - Weston Recovery Services - to get me, as they were so busy.

The lovely mechanic checked on me first, assured himself that I was unharmed, then turned to my car.  It started at once and gave no indication that anything at all was wrong.  I stared in shock, but at least that gave us chance to drive off the motorway into the relative safety of a nearby Morrison's car-park.

For over an hour he investigated under my bonnet, under my dashboard, under my car.  He could find nothing wrong with it at all.  But he had a theory involving hydraulic tappets or some such thing.

I didn't care.  I was back on the road and I was going home! 

But my lack of 'phone worried him.  He hunted in his van for ages, looking for an in-car charger to give to me as a gift.  None of them fitted my 'phone, but it was sweet of him to look.  He urged me to pull in at the next services and get one.  I promised him that I would.  Nevertheless, he looked so worried as I drove away.

It turned out that he was right to do so.

Out of Control on the M5 Motorway

It was a wonderful view outside my window. But I wasn't really noticing it much, as I fought to steer a powerless car.

I've always loved that stretch of motorway just south of Bristol.  Traveling north, you barely have to glance to the west to see the coastline of Wales beckoning across the broad expanse of the Severn Estuary.  It's so very beautiful.

But less so, when the ticking noise is loud and your car has lost power. I was traveling on momentum and steering alone.

I was determined to keep going, with the road-signs telling me that Gordano Services was only a mile away.  My foot pumped on the accelerator, flooring the pedal, then raising in quick succession with no resistance at all.  My car's engine howled its protest, but I needed some revs.  The motorway was carrying me downhill, but it turned upwards before the junction.

Elen Llwyddog, helpu fi!   I jammed the accelerator down again and, against all reason, the engine spluttered into life.  I crawled up the slipway and through lights that turned green at my approach; around the round-about and I was in the services! 

This was a much better place to break down.  It had a toilet, public telephone boxes and a Starbucks, whose staff allowed me to charge my 'phone, while I sipped chai latte.

There was also the most beautiful sunset.  I hadn't yet made it out of Somerset, but I was gazing out over a Welsh sky, blood red and vivid in the West.

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The Second Rescue and Home

I learned to really appreciate the AA that night. Without their amazing service, I would have been stranded.

If the first wait had been an eternity; then this one seemed like seconds. The AA man worked under my bonnet in the darkening of the day and won. 

There was still talk of hydraulic tappets, but this time also of oil.  He emptied a liter and a half of it into my engine, then checked for leaks and burns. As with before, my car behaved itself in his company.

The mechanic and I took a drive to nearby Portishead to check that all was well, pausing en route to buy an in car 'phone charger from a garage.  Whatever happened now, I would be able to text the world about it.

Satisfied that we'd finally got to the root of the problem, the AA man wanted to make absolutely sure.  He followed me twenty miles along the motorway until, at Michael Wood Services, he took his leave.

It was twenty past midnight when I arrived home.  It had been quarter to six when I left Glastonbury. An hour and a half journey in ordinary times had taken over six hours to complete. But I'd learned some lessons at the side of the M5 motorway; and in this article, I hope that I shared them all with you.

Stay safe driving tonight.

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I can't reiterate enough how much hassle owning one of these would have saved me. I learned my lesson and own one now.
Updated: 02/19/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 07/03/2012

I do love the freedom of a car though. <3 Thanks very much. Now that it's over, it feels more exciting than the reality was!

Tolovaj on 07/03/2012

I am glad I don't have a car... Glad everything worked out o.k. and you succeeded to make another story:)

JoHarrington on 06/29/2012

All good here! Have you rushed out and bought a car phone charger after hearing this story? :D

Ragtimelil on 06/29/2012

Ack. What a story. I have the hearing thing too and it's getting worse. I need a car charger too....Glad you're ok!

JoHarrington on 06/28/2012

Nice one! i have my fingers crossed for you. :)

JoHarrington on 06/27/2012

Yes, all good here. :) And how are you?

JoHarrington on 06/27/2012

Well, there was a sliver of life that day. ;) My car is running like a dream again now. No sign that it was ever not good!

Kate on 06/27/2012

When is the one time in ten you have your phone on? Seriously though that sounds distressing! Glad you're back in one piece

JoHarrington on 06/26/2012

I will! I've so learned my lesson now. I have that in car charger sitting right under where it plugs in. :)

You stay safe too, cariad. <3

JoHarrington on 06/26/2012

Thank you. :) I hope that no-one was hurt in the crash that you witnessed.

I was sort of safe up the hillside, but for getting cold. As long as help is coming, you'll be fine. <3

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