How to Handle a Roadside Breakdown

How to Handle a Roadside Breakdown

Michael Kelly

A survey by AAA discovered that 4 in 10 U.S. drivers are not ready to deal with typical roadside emergency breakdowns. As you start planning upcoming travel (road trip perhaps?) make sure to follow these tips to help prepare for and know how to handle a roadside breakdown.

How to Prepare an Emergency Car Care Kit

Put together a kit containing the items you might need during a 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:

  • 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.

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.

What to Do if Your Vehicle Breaks Down on the Road

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 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 vehicle. 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 vehicle 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 such as AAA, 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.

Customers of The Hartford with towing and labor 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.

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14 Responses to "How to Handle a Roadside Breakdown"
  • 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.

  • Quentin Barnes | February 21, 2020 at 5:56 am

    Check All the Basic Maintenance Items before going anywhere. Your car is what you’re going to rely on while you’re traveling. Make sure your car is ready for next road trip.

  • Levi Armstrong | February 12, 2020 at 10:14 pm

    Thank you for the tip to carry any medication you may need, as well as bandages and first aid, in your car's emergency kit. It's probably not a bad idea to keep a tow truck's number in there as well. That way, if your car breaks down, you already know who to call.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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 | June 18, 2019 at 11:48 am

    Thanks for reading, Shayla!

  • 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 | 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.

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

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

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

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

  • 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.

  • 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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