A survey by AAA discovered that four in 10 U.S. drivers are not ready to deal with typical roadside breakdowns. As you start planning upcoming travel (a road trip perhaps?) make sure to follow these tips to help prepare for and handle a roadside breakdown.
Before a Roadside Breakdown: Map Out a Roadside Assistance Plan
It’s wise to decide ahead of time what you’ll do if your car breaks down while you’re on the road. Start by looking at your roadside assistance options and what they cover. Each plan offers different levels of service with different pros, cons and costs.
Here are four common ways to get roadside assistance coverage:
AAA Roadside Assistance
One of the best-known ways to get roadside assistance: join the American Automobile Association (AAA). This club for drivers charges an annual membership fee that pays for a package of benefits including roadside service. The benefits and cost vary based on the level of membership you choose and where you live. If you’re a member of AAA, look at your membership benefits to see what is included. For example, you may be limited to a certain number of service calls per year.
Car Insurance Roadside Assistance
Some car insurance policies include roadside assistance or allow you to add it to your policy. Check with your agent or look at your policy to see if you have roadside assistance with your car insurance and what is included. If you don’t have it already, you may be able to easily add coverage.
Credit Card Roadside Assistance
Some credit cards offer roadside assistance as a cardmember benefit. Check the terms and conditions of your credit card to see if this perk is included. If it is, read the fine print to learn how to use it and how much it costs. For example, Visa roadside assistance includes towing up to five miles for free. Any additional miles will be charged to your card.
Car Manufacturer Roadside Assistance
Many car manufacturers offer roadside assistance up to a certain mileage or timeframe on new vehicles. If you have a new car, check to see if roadside assistance is included for you, what it covers and how long it lasts. For example, Ford offers coverage up to 60,000 miles or five years, whichever comes first.
When you’ve decided which roadside assistance service you’ll use, make some quick notes on the service and store them in your glove box or phone. Jot down this information so you’ll have it in case of a roadside breakdown:
- Your information: Write down the details you’ll be required to provide to get service. For example, AAA requires you to have your membership card and a photo ID. So it’s a good idea to make a copy or take a photo of both as a backup. And Ford requires your vehicle identification number (VIN), your car make, model and color, and your license plate number.
- Benefits and limits: Write down the benefits included and any limits on service, such as the number of miles of towing included, plus how much it costs to go beyond the limit. Some services include a full range of free help, such as battery jumps, a gas delivery, lockout service and flat-tire changes. Others simply call a tow truck and send you the bill.
- Service phone number: Jot down the phone number you need to call for help and put it in your glove box. Also plug the number into your phone contacts so you’re not scrambling to find it while you’re by the side of the road, possibly with spotty internet connection.
Being prepared in this way will allow you to know exactly who to call in case of car trouble and will save you lots of uncertainty and stress in a roadside breakdown.
How to Prepare an Emergency Car Care Kit
Put together a kit containing the items you might need during a roadside breakdown. When it comes to supplies, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Your car care kit should consist of a canvas bag or plastic tote bin and contain the following:
- Cell phone charger
- First-aid kit
- Jumper cables
- Flares or reflective warning triangles
- Flashlights and extra batteries
- Paper towels
- Drinking water
- Nonperishable snacks
- Any medication that you or one of your regular passengers may need
- If you live in an area that gets snow: a window scraper, small shovel and kitty litter.
It’s especially important to remember your cell phone charger and keep your phone plugged in while you drive. If you get into an accident, have a roadside breakdown or get stuck in snow, you may need your phone to call for help.
You should also make alterations to your kit based on the season. In the wintertime, you may want to include extra garments, such as gloves and hats. Add extra water bottles, sunblock, instant cold packs and bug repellent in the summer.
Get Your Vehicle Ready to Hit the Road
Before you set off on a road trip, it’s a good idea to get your car, truck or SUV checked over by a trusted mechanic — or do it yourself if you’ve got the skills — to make sure it’s roadworthy.
A pre-road-trip check should include:
- Looking at your vehicle’s fluids: Your car depends on six essential fluids in order to run well, according to Popular Mechanics. First check the oil. You can then check the fluids for the brakes, power steering, radiator, transmission and windshield wipers.
- Testing the car’s battery: A simple pre-trip battery test can ensure your car battery has plenty of power and can help prevent you from getting stranded by the side of the road, according to AAA.
- Looking at the tires: Make sure the air pressure is adequate and the tires have been rotated every 5,000 to 8,000 miles and replaced on schedule. Check to see that there are no bulges on the sides of the tires or other problems like nail punctures. Use the penny test to make sure none of the tires are bald, Firestone recommends. What’s the penny test? Insert a penny head first between the treads. If you can see all of Abraham Lincoln’s head, it’s time for new tires.
- Doing a general vehicle check: You or your mechanic should also give the rest of the car a once-over, including checking air filters, belts, hoses and lights.
Finally, don’t forget to make sure you’ve got a spare tire and that it’s in good working order. You’ll need it if you get a flat tire on the road.
What to Do if You Have a Roadside Breakdown
Your top priority when your vehicle breaks down is to get it to the safest position possible. From there, you can signal for help. If you’re capable of making repairs you can also do that.
Move Your Vehicle to a Safe Location
Vehicle breakdowns can be terrifying and dangerous. Without warning, your vehicle’s engine may stop. Power steering and anti-lock brakes may stop as well. If your vehicle breaks down, you should try to coast over to the right shoulder. Avoid using your brakes unless you’re going to hit an object. You will need as much momentum as you can get to stop your vehicle in the safest place possible. Follow the same rules of the road that you would if you were changing lanes. Use your turn signals and check your mirrors. Only move into the left shoulder as a last resort.
If possible, pull over on a straight part of the road or before a curve. Avoid stopping your car after a curve. This will make it more difficult for cars to see you, for you to see cars and for service vehicles to stop and help you. Once your vehicles come to a complete stop, put your car in park and engage the e-brake. If you stop your vehicle on the shoulder, turn your steering wheel as far as possible away from traffic. Doing this can help prevent you from rolling into traffic if you’re hit from behind.
It’s okay to stay in your current lane if you’re not able to change lanes when your vehicle breaks down. Again, resist the urge to hit your brakes unless you’re going to collide with another vehicle. Allow yourself to coast until you have come to a stop. Then put your car in park and pull up on the e-brake.
Only Make the Repairs You Feel Comfortable Making
Making repairs on your broken-down vehicle is a judgment call that only you can make. You shouldn’t make this call lightly. You’ll need to assess the situation that you’re in to determine if you should get out of your vehicle. If your vehicle has broken down on the highway you may not want to get out of your car. If your vehicle has broken down in a residential or low traffic area, it may be safe to get out. But only get out if there’s good reason.
You should also consider how comfortable you are with making repairs on your vehicle. If you’re not used to changing your tires in your garage then you shouldn’t change them on a busy highway. Also, don’t make repairs on the side of your car that is exposed to traffic.
Busy roads and highways are the worst places to make vehicle repairs. Fortunately, though, they are the most traveled by tow trucks and emergency services. If your vehicle breaks down in a high-traffic road, it’s likely that a police officer will soon spot you. The officer should be able to help you or direct traffic around your vehicle while you make repairs.
It’s important that you let other drivers know that your vehicle has broken down. Doing this can help them avoid hitting your vehicle and also help you get assistance. If your cell phone is available, contact a roadside service or the police department. Also, be sure to hang a white cloth out a window that is facing traffic and turn your hazard lights on.
Practice Personal Safety
When you break down on the side of the road, another driver may stop, ask if you need help and even offer you a ride. Never unlock your vehicle doors or lower your windows to talk with a stranger who has stopped, AAA recommends. If you do need help, ask the person, through a closed window, to call the police or roadside assistance.
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You can run the heater in your car as long as you know the tailpipe is not obstructed. There’s a chance that accumulations could be blocking the tailpipe if you break down in heavy snow. In this situation, turning on your heater could result in carbon monoxide poisoning. If you can safely get out of your car, use the shovel in your emergency car care kit to clear the area behind the tailpipe. You should also bundle up immediately with as many layers as you can get. Do this even if it feels too warm because your car can quickly lose heat. It’s easier for you to warm up the layers if there is still heat in the car than it is if the cabin has become cold.
If your car breaks down in the summertime you can roll the windows up and turn on the air conditioning. This should help you and your passengers stay comfortable. If you do roll your windows down, use the sunblock and bug repellent from your emergency car care kit.
In both seasons, make sure that you leave enough gas in your tank to be able to drive once your vehicle is repaired. Also, never go to sleep in your car with the engine running.
Vehicle break downs can be scary because they’re often unexpected. But if you prepare for a breakdown, it’s no longer unexpected—it’s just inconvenient. By following these steps, you can help stay safe during a breakdown and get back on the road sooner.
Have you had a roadside breakdown? What additional tips would you add to help readers stay safe?