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Driver is killed outside car after tunnel accident

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A Somerville man was killed in the Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. Tunnel yesterday after he was involved in a fender-bender, got out to exchange information with the other driver and inspect the damage, and was struck by another vehicle.

Authorities said the accident illustrates the danger of stopping in Big Dig tunnels, where tight lanes and a lack of breakdown lanes can prove deadly for drivers leaving their cars.

Sara Lavoie, a spokeswoman for the state Transportation Department, said highway operations staff could not recall a similar accident involving a driver in the tunnel system. There are no signs in the tunnel advising drivers not to leave their vehicles if there is a breakdown or accident.

Yesterday morning, David Dang, 75, pulled onto a narrow southbound shoulder of Interstate 93 after his car was in a minor accident with a sedan. After exchanging information with the other driver, Dang attempted to reenter his car and was struck by a sport utility vehicle.

Dang was taken to Boston Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.

Drivers involved in accidents or breakdowns must weigh the potential risks of every move, said State Police spokesman David Procopio.

In the minds of drivers, he said, there may appear to be two reasonable options: Attempt to leave the car to quickly exchange information with a fellow driver, or wait in the car. In the end, Procopio said, drivers are safest if they stay inside their vehicles.

The accident happened at 8:17 a.m. just south of Exit 20, which splits into lanes for South Boston, the South End, and South Station.

Video from surveillance cameras inside the tunnel, which was reviewed by State Police investigators, showed that Dang’s 2000 Honda Pilot collided with the side of a mid-size sedan.

In that section of the tunnel, there is no breakdown lane - only a shoulder that is 1 to 2 feet wide. The drivers pulled their cars as far as they could onto the shoulder. Dang parked in front, and turned on his hazard lights. The drivers met between the two vehicles to exchange information, then returned to their cars.

As Dang reached the driver’s side of his car, he was hit by a Toyota RAV4, which pushed him against his car, then carried him farther south in the tunnel.

The driver of the vehicle that struck Dang was a 64-year-old Ayer man. Police did not release his name. He stayed at the scene and was interviewed by State Police, who continued last night to investigate whether charges were warranted.

The driver of the sedan involved in the minor collision, though present at the time of the fatal accident, left before police arrived.

Traffic in southbound lanes of I-93 backed up as far as Somerville, before the accident site was cleared at about 11 a.m.

Dang’s family could not be reached yesterday by telephone, and no one appeared to be home at his Somerville residence.

For drivers who must pull over in the tunnel, Procopio had this advice: Stay in the car.

“Whatever you do, it’s going to be dangerous, but it’s safer to be in a car than outside of a car,’’ Procopio said.

The car should be made as visible as possible by turning on hazard lights, headlights, and the lights inside the vehicle. While cameras in the tunnel are continually monitored for accidents and stalled cars, drivers are advised to call 911 immediately if they have cellphones.

“We’ll get there as soon as we can to light up the scene and close down lanes,’’ Procopio said.

When two drivers involved in an accident have to exchange phone numbers and insurance information, it is best for both to stay in their cars, call 911, and wait for police to cordon off a safe space. Or, if the vehicles are not badly damaged, drivers should continue on the highway until they can find room to pull over.

And while some drivers may carry flares or reflectors to post behind their vehicle, the tunnel is not the best place to use them, Procopio said.

“We don’t really want you back there fussing with stuff like that when traffic’s coming by,’’ Procopio said.

Drivers who have to flag down help should roll down their windows and wave at fellow motorists from inside their cars, said Jose Ucles, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. If they must stand outside their car, he said, they should stand in front or behind the car, not by the side.

John Paul, manager of traffic safety for AAA Southern New England, advised drivers who stay in their cars to keep their seat belts fastened.

“Just because you’re not moving doesn’t mean a crash can’t happen,’’ Paul said.

The risk of being slammed from behind while sitting in a stationary car is what prompts people to attempt to abandon their cars, Procopio said.

In the O’Neill Tunnel, that decision is even more challenging because pedestrian platforms on the sides of the tunnel might seem like a safe spot.

But the chances of safely reaching those catwalks, Procopio said, are just too low.

“That’s an option, but it’s risky,’’ Procopio said. “Unless you’re absolutely, completely sure, your best bet is to just stay in the car.’’

Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com.

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