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How to Handle a Roadside Breakdown

How to Handle a Roadside Breakdown

Michael Kelly and Allie Johnson

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:

1

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.

2

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.

3

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.

4

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.

Car with Roadside Assistance

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
  • Blankets
  • 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.

Tire Tread Penny Test

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.

Roadside Breakdown Traffic Flare

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.

Get Assistance

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.

Customers of The Hartford with towing and roadside assistance coverage can call RESCUE 1-800® Emergency Road Service – offering access to a network of 40,000 towing services countrywide – so help is nearby any time of the day or night, 365 days a year.

Hold Tight

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?

15 Responses to "How to Handle a Roadside Breakdown"
    • Charlotte Fleet | December 23, 2020 at 7:40 pm

      Michael, thank you so much for your tips on what to do for a roadside breakdown. I like how you mentioned that it is important to let the other drivers on the road know that you are broken down by turning on your hazards in order to prevent getting hit. I think that having an emergency roadside assistance company in mind for you to call would also be very beneficial when your car has broken down.

    • rachel frampton | August 31, 2020 at 11:32 pm

      My car’s engine suddenly stopped functioning while I was driving to work, which is why I’ve decided to start looking for a towing service that may collect my vehicle from the side of the road. Anyways, thank you for this; next time, I’ll make sure to use my tune signals and check my mirror when transferring the car into a safer place. You’re also right about the importance of rolling down the car windows for a while so it wouldn’t be too hot. http://boydtransmission.com/services.html

    • Jim | August 29, 2020 at 2:26 am

      Had a near blowout on 294 doing 70mph. luckily South Holland was in sight. pulled off there and called emergency # on card and they came in a hour. Luckily I was by a Oasis…So now I keep track of EVERY mile marker sign or nearest exit so they can find where I broke down.

    • Greta James | May 4, 2020 at 6:21 pm

      Thank you so much for your tips that you should try to get to the right shoulder and you should avoid hitting your breaks because you will need your momentum. About a week ago, I was talking to my sister, and she mentioned that she bought a car! I am so excited for her, and I want to make sure she stays safe. I will have to tell her about your tips and help her look for roadside assistance services that she could contact if needed.

    • Sabrina Addams | February 24, 2020 at 3:08 pm

      It really helped when you said to let the drivers around you know that you’re broken down, get assistance, and turn your hazards on to help keep you safe. My daughter lives in Olathe, KS and drives a 20-year-old car. I think it’d be smart for her to find an emergency tow service and their contact information to keep on hand in case her car breaks down.

    • Angela Waterford | November 18, 2019 at 4:27 pm

      It’s true that vehicle breakdowns can be dangerous, especially if I don’t know what’s wrong with it. I think I’ll look into some services that offer roadside assistance to make sure that if anything happens to my car, I’ll be ready to call for their help. This way, I can make sure that I won’t have to worry in case it breaks down in the middle of the road.

    • Elisabeth Southgate | September 11, 2019 at 4:00 pm

      I found it interesting when you said that it is a a good idea to hang a white cloth from your window and turn your hazard lights on. I can see how doing this can help others avoid hitting you and to stop for assistance. My daughter recently started driving. I will have to tell to be sure to turn her hazard lights on if she ever gets stalled on the side of the road.

      • Extra Mile Staff | September 13, 2019 at 12:44 pm

        Hello, Elisabeth. We are glad you found these tips useful. And congrats on the new driver in your home. I handpicked this article that you may enjoy reading as well: Monitoring Your Teen Driver

    • Shayla Cademis | June 13, 2019 at 2:22 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation to have an emergency car kit and to make alterations to it based on the season! My husband’s car broke down yesterday in his office parking lot, and he definitely could’ve used some extra water and bug repellent since it was fairly hot and humid while he waited for me to pick him up. We’ll have to find a good towing service to help us move the car, so we can get it fixed. I’ll have to put in some emergency kits once we do so.

      • Extra Mile Staff | June 18, 2019 at 11:48 am

        Thanks for reading, Shayla!

    • Geneva Curtis | May 25, 2019 at 3:58 pm

      I wish you had an icon to print this valuable information. Thank you

      • Extra Mile Staff | May 28, 2019 at 12:23 pm

        Hi Geneva, we do! You can find the icon at the top of the article, next to the title.

    • Betty Chandler | May 25, 2019 at 2:56 pm

      I have had to use the roadside assistance feature of my policy a few times. Each time I was first asked if I was safe. I felt really good about that. Other carriers in the past could have cared less. Then I was taken care of like I was better than family. (You’d have to know my family). Thanks Hartford.

      • Extra Mile Staff | May 28, 2019 at 12:12 pm

        Thank you for sharing Betty! We are happy to be your carrier 🙂

    • Karen Myers | December 14, 2017 at 6:27 pm

      I’m not sure if I have roadside service or not. And after getting a blowout last night on a dark road in Palm Springs by myself, I didn’t know what to do. So I drove, slowly, to the nearest gas station and found a good samaratin to change my tire. So, how do I find out if I have it or need to get it?

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