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Driving safely in road tunnels

Despite the fact that modern road tunnels are constructed with many safety features, they can still be a very dangerous place to be in the event of an accident, particularly if there is a fire.

A tunnel that was constructed 40 or 50 years ago may not have all the safety features that would be necessary in a modern construction. A long road tunnel would typically have some or all of the safety features listed below.
  • Emergency ventilation system. If there is a fire in the tunnel, the emergency ventilation system will blow the smoke in one particular direction, enabling at least one end of the tunnel to stay clear of smoke. In the event of a fire you should always walk towards the flow of air to ensure a safe exit.

  • Emergency lighting systems. If the main lighting system fails there will be a backup system to enable drivers to escape.

  • Emergency exits. Some tunnels may have a smaller secondary tunnel running parallel to the main one. This would be accessed via fire proof doors spread out at intervals along the main tunnel

  • Emergency stations. These are areas set at intervals at the side of the tunnel with emergency phones, fire fighting and first aid equipment

  • Closed circuit TV (CCTV) cameras. Long tunnels will often have cameras monitoring the traffic flow through the tunnel from a control centre.

How to drive safely through a road tunnel

Extra care needs to be taken in road tunnels, unlike open roads there may not be anywhere to stop easily. Accidents in the confined space of a road tunnel can be particularly dangerous, so there are a number of things you need to bear in mind as you are driving.

  • Keep your distance from the car in front

  • If there are only two lanes of traffic through the tunnel, do not attempt to overtake

  • Don't stop in the tunnel for any reason except an emergency

  • Turn on dipped headlights

  • Do not attempt to turn or reverse

  • Observe the speed limits

If you break down in a tunnel

The space available to stop in a road tunnel is likely to be restricted, this means that you may pose a hazard to other drivers as you may not be able to get your vehicle completely off the road. If you break down in a road tunnel you should follow these rules.

  • Put your hazard lights on as soon as you notice the problem

  • Pull over to the side of the road as far as you can and stop

  • Turn off your engine

  • You and your passengers should leave the vehicle, but take care with the passing traffic

  • Use the nearest emergency phone to report the breakdown and follow their instructions

If you have an accident

  • Put your hazard lights on

  • If your vehicle is still drivable, pull the vehicle over to the side of the road

  • Turn off the engine

  • If you are not seriously injured, you should leave the vehicle, but take care with the passing traffic

  • If you are able, help any other injured parties. Do not attempt to move anyone who is seriously injured

  • Call the emergency services from the nearest emergency phone

  • Vehicle fires

    Fires in road tunnels can be particularly dangerous because of the confined space. A vehicle fire can produce toxic fumes which can build up inside the tunnel and produce life threatening conditions. The temperature in a tunnel fire can also rise very rapidly.

    • If your vehicle catches fire, you should try and drive the vehicle out of the tunnel if possible, otherwise pull over, put your hazard lights on and leave the vehicle.

    • Turn off your engine but leave the key in the ignition

    • Go to the nearest emergency phone, call the emergency services and take their advice

    • Do not attempt to open the bonnet if their is a fire in the engine, the bonnet may be hot and it may make the fire worse

    • Unless the fire is very small and you have an extinguisher, do not attempt to put the fire out yourself

    • Leave the tunnel along the marked escape route or the nearest emergency exit as quickly as possible

    • Help others escape if you are able to do so

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