8 Steps to Take When Your Car Breaks Down

Handling a vehicle failure while on the road shouldn’t be cause for panic, especially when you know ahead of time what to do.Have you ever heard anyone tell a new driver, “Expect the unexpected”?

Probably not. But it wouldn’t hurt.

Because you never know when a wild turkey, attempting to take flight (and, yes, they do fly - sort of) is going to careen into the side of your car.

Or when you’ll suddenly find yourself and your car pulled over on the side of a road with a flat tire and no spare - or pulled over because, out of nowhere (of course), your dashboard has become a Lite-BriteTM of warning signals.

If you’ve ever been in one of these, or similar, situations and weren’t prepared, don’t worry -  you weren’t the first and you certainly won’t be the last. AAA, in fact, reported rescuing 32 million drivers in 2015.

Handling a vehicle failure while on the road shouldn’t be cause for panic, especially when you know ahead of time what to do.

Be prepared for when your vehicle breaks down 

The tips, actions, and steps below won’t prevent your vehicle from breaking down while you’re driving it, but they CAN help improve your preparedness, increase your safety, and reduce your feelings of fear, panic, or anxiety if you have car, truck, or SUV troubles while on the road.

So, let’s get started:

1. Know your numbers

Have a list of emergency phone numbers ready so you don’t have to spend time looking them up. Keep a list saved on your phone and keep a hard copy with your insurance and registration information in your glove compartment. Remember to include the phone numbers for any roadside assistance providers (e.g. AAA, USAA, Nationwide, Allstate) and towing companies.

2. Have a Roadside Emergency Kit in your vehicle

Since you never know what life is going to throw at you, keeping even the most basic emergency roadside supplies in your car or truck might come in handy when you least expect it. 

Flares, warning/reflective triangles, and a white flag are just a few of the items to consider. You can make your own kits, or buy pre-made ones at your local automotive parts store.

How to Build the Ultimate Vehicle First-Aid & Emergency Survival Kit

Steps to take when your car breaks down 

What do you do when your car breaks down on the highway? On a rural road far from home? At night?

  • Flat or blown tire?
  • Brake failure?
  • Engine stops while you’re driving?
  • Dash lights come on and you’re unsure of the issue?

What you shouldn’t do is panic. You’ve got this. The more you know, the better you’ll feel if such a situation arises.

Below are actions to take if your car breaks down. Familiarize yourself (and any new drivers in your household) with these steps. 

3. Get your car off the road

In most cases, pull off the road to the right shoulder. Only pull into the left shoulder as a last resort. According to the National Safety Council, take your foot off the accelerator and gently and smoothly maneuver to the side of the road. Do not brake hard or suddenly. Signal to drivers around you that you are moving over.

Once your vehicle is safely stopped off the road, turn your steering wheel (and, thus, your tires) into the curb - away from the road - and engage your parking brake to prevent your vehicle from rolling into traffic.

But what if you CAN’T pull your car off the road (like if your vehicle loses power suddenly)? In this situation, immediately turn on your vehicle’s safety/emergency flashers or hazard lights to signal to other drivers that you’re stopped. 

Do not - under any circumstance - risk personal injury by attempting to push your vehicle to a safer location.

4. Mark your location and make your vehicle visible

Make your vehicle visible to other drivers on the road by turning on your emergency flashers/hazard lights and/or using reflective triangles. If it’s dark out, you could turn on your car’s or truck’s interior dome light.

5. Know where you are

When you call for assistance, try to have at least a general idea of your location to provide to emergency or roadside assistance services:

  • Know where you are in relation to a major exit or cross street.
  • Look for well-lighted areas.
  • Notice landmarks, such as gas stations or restaurants, you can reference when summoning assistance.

6. Call for help

Once you’re out of harm’s way, use that list of emergency numbers you have saved (see #1 above) and your cell phone to call for help. Or, if applicable, use your vehicle’s telematics systems to call for emergency services.

7. Signal to others that you’re having car trouble

In addition to putting on your hazard lights to make your car visible, pop your hood or hang a white cloth (or piece of paper) from the antenna or out your car window to signal that you’re experiencing car troubles and they can proceed around you.

8. Stay with your car and wait for help

Most roadside services (like AAA) require the driver to be present; however, whether you stay inside the car or a safe distance from the car is entirely situational:

  • If you decide to exit your vehicle and stand a safe distance away, do not exit into traffic. For instance, if you are pulled over on the right shoulder of a road and decide to exit your vehicle, do so through the passenger-side door. Do not stand behind or next to your vehicle. Stand away from your vehicle while waiting for help to arrive.
  • If you decide to wait inside your vehicle, make sure the doors are locked. If someone stops to offer help, roll your window down slightly and ask them to call the police for you.

Your safety (and that of anyone with you) should be your top priority. Roadways are dangerous places for people on foot. The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration reports that  5,376 pedestrians were killed in 2015 up from 4,884 in 2014. Remember, interstates and highways are not designed for people on foot.

You know what to do - don’t panic!

Handling a vehicle failure while on the road shouldn’t be cause for panic, especially when you know ahead of time what to do.

You’ve got this. Be prepared, be calm, and be safe. 

In the meantime, print out a copy of our Ultimate Vehicle First Aid & Emergency Survival Kit checklist and start checking items off. Oh, and get going on that emergency list of phone numbers. 


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