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What to Do If Your Car Breaks Down

6 min. read

The scene is all too easy to imagine: You’re headed home after a long day when suddenly you hear a loud thud and your car veers to the right. You take your foot off the gas and manage to pull over without causing an accident. Grateful to be unhurt, you sit still for a moment and wait for your heart to stop racing.

What now?

Chances are, if you haven’t been stranded on the side of the road at least once in your driving career already, you’ll find yourself there at some point. Statistics run by AAA indicate that the company alone serves more than 30 million stranded motorists each year.

Furthermore, another survey by AAA found that 40% of U.S. drivers are not prepared to handle an emergency breakdown. Given that the swift decisions one makes in the midst of a breakdown directly affect safety, it’s important that every American know the best choices to make in a variety of situations in order to ensure the well-being of everyone on the road.

Step 1: Pull to the Side of the Road and Turn on Your Hazards

There could be hundreds of reasons why your primary mode of transportation has failed you, but that doesn’t matter yet. The moment you realize that there’s a problem with your vehicle, pull to the right side of the road as quickly as it is safe to do so. If you cannot make it to the right side of the road and there is a left shoulder, go there — it’s safer than staying in the middle of the road. Once you’ve pulled over, turn on your hazards to make passersby and police officers aware that there is a problem with your vehicle. If you can’t make it to the side of the road, make sure that your hazards are on, but do not attempt to get out and push the car.

Step 2: Determine Whether or Not You Should Get Out of the Car

Once you’ve pulled over and alerted others of the emergency with your hazards, you need to determine whether or not it is safe for you to get out of the car. Is traffic heavy and unpredictable? Stay in the car and call for help or wait until traffic clears up. Keep all doors locked and windows up. If anyone stops to offer aid, make sure to ask for ID first and take a photo of the ID.

Have you made it to the side of the highway safely in light traffic with room to spare on both sides of the shoulder? Go ahead and exit the car (ideally on the passenger side). If you do exit your vehicle and there are passengers in the car, make sure they remain in their seat belts.

Step 3: Evaluate the Situation

If you have any experience working with cars, pop the hood (which will also tell other drivers that you’re having trouble) and see what you can determine. If it’s something you’re confident you can fix on your own, give it a try. Just remember to stay as far away as possible from the road. If you do not have ample experience with cars, do not attempt to fix your vehicle on your own.

Please note: If there is smoke coming from under the hood, do not attempt to open it. If you don’t have any knowledge regarding cars and it’s safe to leave your vehicle, go ahead and step outside. Take a 360 look at your vehicle, without getting near other cars, and note any damage or concerns so you can give your roadside assistance the most information possible when you call.

Step 4: Call for Help

If you have roadside assistance, call and say that you need to file a claim. Customer service should be there to help you. If you aren’t sure whether you have roadside assistance through your car insurance, check your coverage information online or call the insurance company and ask. Without insurance, tows can be very expensive, so it’s best to exhaust all possibilities of financial assistance before calling a tow company on your own. Make sure you go through the insurance or roadside assistance company for your tow, as some companies will not reimburse you if you let them know about the incident later. In highly populated areas, it can sometimes be more than an hour before roadside assistance reaches you, so remain a safe distance from the road while you wait and make sure everyone inside your car is buckled in.

If you do not have roadside assistance, you can either call a towing company directly or call a family member or friend to pick you up. If you need to leave your car on the side of the road overnight, it’s best to call your local police station and let them know that you have plans to move it the next day. Otherwise, you car might get towed and you could be fined.

Step 5: Prevent/Prepare for Another Breakdown

Breakdowns are inevitable, so it’s unrealistic to think that you can prevent them entirely. However, you can prevent some, and you can prepare for all of them. Once you’re safely home, consider how you might prevent further problems with your vehicle: Make sure you get regular maintenance done, schedule on-time oil changes, check your tire pressure and inflate as needed, and avoid letting your gas tank get too low.

To be prepared for another unfortunate breakdown, make sure you have the numbers for any roadside assistance programs you’re enrolled in on your person or in your glove compartment at all times. Additionally, buy a cell phone charger that you can keep in your car, and purchase or assemble an emergency road kit, including items like a first-aid kit, flares, a flashlight, jumper cables, and duct tape. Additionally, if your car does not come with a spare tire, buy one and keep it in your trunk. Sometimes after a breakdown you have to wait a while for help to arrive. Keeping a few water bottles and some nonperishable food on hand is also recommended.

FAQ

What are the most common reasons cars break down on the road?

According to Affordable Auto in Hopkins, Minnesota, the most common reasons why vehicles break down are batteries, belts, starters, and engines. Christian Brothers automotive adds problem tires to this list. Briefly checking your tire pressure, oil, and other essentials every couple of weeks can help you avoid some of these major issues.

What if my car breaks down at night?

Vehicles are very difficult to see in the dark without lights on, so it’s essential that you turn on your hazard lights and set flares, if possible. Even with hazards and flares, drivers may still miss your car. Make sure you do not stand directly in front of or behind your car, and only exit from the passenger side. Also, at night, be even more cautious about accepting help from strangers who stop by.

What do I do if my car breaks down and I don’t have cell service?

If your car breaks down in an area without cell service or you do not have a working cell phone, turn on the hazards and place any flares you have. If you’re in an unpopulated area and you have a sheet of paper in your car, write “CALL POLICE” on it and tape it to your back window. If you are in a more populated area, lock your car and move it as far from the road as possible. Leave a note on the windshield with the time and date, explaining that you are returning, then walk to a location with a phone or someone who can help.

What if I don’t have roadside assistance?

If you do not have roadside assistance, see if any friends or family can help you out. Alternatively, some toll roads have roadside assistance available to anyone using the road. The numbers for this assistance are available online or on signs along the road. You can also call a tow company or maintenance professional directly. If none of these options work, call 911.

What’s Next?

  • To prepare for any unfortunate breakdowns on the road, make sure you have a car insurance company that offers roadside assistance.
  • If your car insurance doesn’t offer roadside assistance, learn how to switch.

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