What to Do if Your Car Breaks Down

Stephen Fogel
January 30, 2019

car breakdown

Nobody likes to think about it, but there’s a good chance that at some point in your life, your car will break down while you’re driving. The problem can range from something as simple as a flat tire all the way to a major mechanical malfunction.

Whatever the reason, it’s essential to know what to do when trouble strikes. These guidelines will help you and your passengers stay safe and get back on the road. 

» LEARN MORE: Find a certified repair shop near you

Get to the side of the road

Your primary objective should be to get your vehicle off the road, out of the flow of traffic. 

If you’re on the freeway and near an exit, and your car seems drivable for now, try to make it to the exit, where more services might be available. If you’re on a city street, try to pull into a parking lot or parking space.

But if these aren’t options, here are a few guidelines on how to get off the road safely: 

  • Take your foot gently off the gas. Let the car slow down primarily on its own, using light pressure on the brake if needed. 
  • Turn on your warning flashers.
  • Get into the right lane, if you aren’t already.
  • If you are on a curve, try to make it past the curve to a straight section of road (this lets traffic see you better, and vice versa).
  • Pull over to the right shoulder, getting as far away from the travel lanes as safely possible.
  • Set the parking brake, and turn the front wheels away from the road (to avoid having the car roll into the roadway if it’s hit from behind).

Assess your situation

First, scan your dashboard while the car’s still running. Are there any warning lights on, especially red ones? If so, check your owner’s manual to find out what they mean. 

What comes next largely depends on your situation. If you’re on a busy highway, the best course of action would be to exit through the passenger-side door and get a good distance away from the vehicle, if at all possible. Even on the shoulder, there’s a chance your car could get rear-ended, and you don’t want to be in it or near it if that happens.

If the highway isn’t busy, and you can see traffic coming from a ways off, try to make your car more visible. Raise the hood (assuming there’s no steam or smoke) and place hazard triangles or flares behind your car. If you have a flat tire, especially if it’s on the passenger side, you can try to change it yourself. Check your owner’s manual for tips on how to use your jack and spare tire, if you have one.

If it’s freezing cold or extremely hot, you’ll be better off staying in the car as much as possible, though, assuming there’s no fire or smell of gas. Stay buckled, in case your car gets hit.  

How to get help

Serious problems mean you’ll have to get help. Typically, this will mean calling someone, so it’s important to know where you are.

If you have internet service, use the mapping app on your smartphone. Or, if you have OnStar or another telematics service, contact them so they can determine your location.

If you’re out of range, try looking for exit signs, mile markers, street names or other signage near your car. Just be sure to stay out of the roadway and away from any traffic. Failing that, look for nearby landmarks like gas stations, restaurants or other businesses. 

Once you have a good idea of where you are, it’s time to make a phone call. If you have cell service, the place to start is your auto club or roadside assistance program. OnStar, AAA and other services can send a tow truck or other help your way. You might also have roadside assistance through your auto insurance — check your insurance card to find out.

Another option is to call a mechanic or a tow truck. They might be able to help you out right where you are; if not, they can get your car to a repair shop. And it’s always a good idea to call friends or family to let them know you’re stranded. 

If the situation is more extreme — if you see smoke or flames, or if the weather is freezing or hot — call 911 or look for a highway call box, which will put you through to an emergency operator. 

Tips for preventing a breakdown

While some causes of breakdowns can’t be foreseen, here are a few helpful hints for preventing one in the first place:

  • Check the oil, coolant, and other fluids regularly, topping them up as needed.
  • Monitor and maintain the proper tire pressure.
  • Rotate your tires, be aware of tire wear, and replace them as necessary.
  • Stay on top of your regularly scheduled maintenance.
  • Get your battery checked twice a year.
  • When your fuel level gets below half a tank, fill it up.
  • If you drive an older, less reliable vehicle, consider renting a car for a long trip.
Stephen Fogel

About the Author

Stephen has been an automotive enthusiast since childhood, owning some of his vehicles for as long as 40 years, and has raced open-wheel formula cars. He follows and writes about the global automotive industry, with an eye on the latest vehicle technologies.

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