car broke down

Things to Remember if Your Car Breaks Down

Your car will usually alert you to the fact that there’s something wrong long before it breaks down, but sometimes you might miss the signals. Once your car breaks down and you find yourself stranded, it’s important to be smart about your reaction so that you don’t make the situation worse.


Take these steps when your car breaks down to keep yourself and other drivers safe:

Get the Car off the Road

Image courtesy of Paul Townsend on Flickr, hosted under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Image courtesy of Paul Townsend on Flickr, hosted under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Whether your car fails you on a busy highway or a quiet country road, you need to get out of the way so that you avoid a collision. To get yourself to safety:

• Turn on your flashers as you’re rolling to a halt to signal that your stop was unexpected.
• Use the remaining momentum to pull off to a visible area at the side of the road; always avoid stopping after a turn, as other drivers won’t see you in time.
• Face your wheels away from the road; that way, your car won’t roll off into the road unexpectedly.
• Engage the emergency brake.

Once the car has come to a complete stop, look around to determine whether it’s safe to get out. If cars are going by in a steady stream, it’s best to stay put in order to avoid getting hurt and endangering others.

Call for Help

Image courtesy of Highways England on Flickr, hosted under CC BY 2.0.

Image courtesy of Highways England on Flickr, hosted under CC BY 2.0.

If you have roadside assistance, call them immediately. These services are available 24/7 to offer help with flat tires, address battery problems, deliver gasoline or oil, perform small repairs, and arrange for towing. If you haven’t signed up for an assistance program, call your regular mechanic, a trusted friend or a family member.

Should you be out of range of cell phone service, you can still call 911. The FCC mandates that any cellular provider in the area must put these emergency calls through—even if they’re made from old phones without any associated service packages. All attempts to make such calls will ping the closest cell tower, making it easier for emergency crews to find you.

Signal the Trouble to Other Drivers

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Other drivers on the road might assume that you’ve simply pulled over to make a call or return a text unless you alert them to your emergency. Putting out a signal gives drivers time to slow down and get around you so that a breakdown doesn’t turn into a pileup.

In addition to having your flashers on, you can indicate your problem by:

  • Setting up emergency flares, warning lights or reflective markers 50 to 100 feet away from the front and rear of the car
  • Hanging a piece of white cloth or paper out of the driver’s side window
  • Propping the hood open – even if nothing might be wrong with your engine, a popped hood is a universal signal that something’s not right with the car

These actions make your car more visible to passing vehicles and let people know that you’re in need of help.

Be Smart

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There may be situations where some of these steps aren’t necessary, such as if your car breaks down within walking distance of a gas station or an auto repair shop where you can easily find someone with the expertise to help. Should your car break down on a quiet road, you don’t have to stay in your car, as there is no heavy traffic that would make it unsafe to exit your vehicle. However, if you’re lucky enough to be able to maneuver your car into a populated area, you won’t have to go far for assistance.


Unless your car has had an obvious problem for a long time, a breakdown will take you by surprise. A sudden loss of control can be terrifying, but keeping a cool head will help you make the right decisions in that moment. Here is what you should avoid:

Getting Panicked

Image courtesy of sidkid on Flickr, hosted under CC BY 2.0.

Image courtesy of sidkid on Flickr, hosted under CC BY 2.0.

Reacting in panic when you’re behind the wheel of a car is almost a guarantee that you’ll wind up in an accident, especially when the vehicle isn’t working properly. You need to be able to think straight to make the right decisions about what to do next and to follow the steps necessary to stay safe.

Accepting Help from Anyone

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Although we are taught from a young age to be wary of strangers, somehow we don’t follow that rule as adults. Strangers approaching with offers of assistance aren’t always good Samaritans. Although it’s most likely that they indeed just want to help, it’s often best to tell them that you appreciate their concern but that help is already on its way.

Giving it the DIY Try

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If you’re in a hurry or think you know what caused the breakdown, it can be tempting to try and fix it yourself. However, something that seems to have an obvious solution could be a symptom of a bigger problem, and chances are you’re not as familiar with what’s under the hood as you think. Attempting a DIY repair could make the problem worse or result in serious injury depending on what you try to fiddle with. Even changing a tire can be risky if you’re stranded at the side of the highway with dozens of cars zipping past. It’s better to wait for help and let a trained mechanic handle the job.

Leaving the Car / CC0 1.0.

Calling roadside assistance won’t do you any good if you’re not there when they arrive. These services can only help if the driver is with the vehicle, and it’s likely that they’re not going to call you to find out where you went. It’s also very dangerous to walk along the side of busy streets, especially highways. In the U.S. alone, over 4,000 pedestrians have fatal encounters with vehicles every year.

As long as you can get out of the car safely, you don’t have to remain inside the vehicle until help arrives. However, if you do get out, stay on the side, away from traffic, and pay attention to the behaviors of other drivers to avoid accidents.

A car breakdown may seem overwhelming when it happens, but your car likely won’t be out of commission for long. Be smart and let the pros take care of everything, and you’ll be back on the road in no time.

Has your car ever broken down unexpectedly? What was wrong, and how did you handle the situation?

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