The family is together. We’re heading to a birthday party on Long Island. I’m driving seventy-five miles an hour southbound on the New York State Thruway and the hybrid warning light comes on the dashboard with the command to TURN OFF ENGINE. The car immediately loses power. This happens right where Route 17 South merges with the Thruway, five lanes of traffic coming together and we’re in the middle. The accelerator is dead. We can’t make it to the shoulder. Vehicles are rocketing past us on both sides.
I have a second to decide and I steer the car to a stop near the tip of a painted triangle in the pavement where the two highways converge just in front of us. Not safe. I put the car in reverse and it bucks back about 30 feet which earns me about eight feet on either side and a strong guardrail just behind me.
The power of my family kicks in: Harriet and two adult children and we’re a team. Immediately one of us has the owner’s manual out, another is searching on their phone and says we should wait five minutes and start the engine again because the hybrid system could reset itself. It doesn’t. We decide we need a tow. We used to have AAA, now we get roadside assistance through our auto insurance agency. I call the number and the automated system sends me a text with a link to click on to request help. The web page won’t display. Harriet tries on her phone. We use different carriers just for this purpose, so one of us might have service when the other doesn’t. She gets connected but the system isn’t working right.
Then we realize on the Thruway there are exclusive towing contracts. Even if we connected to our roadside assistance they couldn’t come on the Thruway for us. We discuss and quickly decide a 911 call is in order. Now they’re sending a tow truck. They should send a state trooper to flash their lights, slow down traffic, and protect us. They don’t.
It’s hot and the traffic is close and loud and fast and we remain calm. I hate being here and having my family in this dangerous spot, yet I’m grateful they’re here to help me.
The tow to the dealership costs hundreds of dollars. They’re so backed up they can’t look at the car for a week. The 90-minute Uber ride back home costs hundreds of dollars. I now understand how a car breakdown might financially ruin someone living paycheck to paycheck, causing or adding to the kind of debt that’s so difficult to escape.
We’re lucky. We don’t get killed on the Thruway. It’s just car trouble. But we miss the birthday party and now I want a new car.