7 Steps to Take When Your Car Breaks Down

Don’t panic. If you are experiencing car troubles, this guide can walk you through every step you should take to stay safe and get help.

1. Turn on your hazards. With your hazards flashing, other cars will know to give you extra space as you navigate to the side of the road. It is a signal to other vehicles that something is not right and that you may drive slower than normal.

2. Pullover soon. As soon as you can safely (and slowly) pull over, do so. Pulling onto the right shoulder is the best choice. Avoid embankments, drop-offs, or anywhere your car may get stuck (such as mud, sand, loose gravel, etc.). Once you are pulled over, keep the hazards on. It is also safest to turn the wheels away from oncoming traffic and then pull your emergency brake.

3. Exit the car safely. If you need to exit the car, make sure the surrounding area is clear. If you can, go out of the passenger side to avoid oncoming traffic. If you are broken down somewhere where it is not safe to exit the vehicle, such as a busy highway, don’t get out until you have help. Police officers or a local tow service will be able to assist in diverting traffic to keep you safe.

4. Increase your visibility. If you have a flare or reflective triangle, placing that behind your vehicle will help alert others on the road that they need to give you a wide berth. Raising your hood is also a signal to others that you are experiencing car troubles.

If you need outside assistance, a white flag on your antenna or in your window lets passersby know you are in a predicament. A sock, napkin, or tissue would work. This is especially helpful if you do not have access to a phone (whether you forgot yours, your phone is not charged, or you don’t have service where you are stuck). Police officers will recognize this as a call for help.

5. Assess the situation. If you know the cause of the breakdown, getting assistance will be easier. Determine if your tire is flat, if you are out of gas, or if there is a larger mechanical problem going on. If something more in-depth is happening under the hood, but you don’t have experience with engines, now is not the time to tinker.
Even if you are comfortable changing a tire, outside factors such as unfavorable weather conditions or dangerous surroundings may make a tire change difficult or impossible in your circumstances.

After assessing the situation, if you believe you are in danger, move away from the vehicle. On the other hand, if you determine that your vehicle is stable, it is best to stay with your vehicle. Get back in the car and buckle up (in case your parked car is hit by a passing vehicle).

6. Call for help. If you are not comfortable changing your own tire, or if you aren’t sure what your car needs, now is the time to call for help. Whom you call will depend on your situation:

  • If you are in danger, call 911 immediately. A call to 911 is also warranted if you or another passenger is injured or ill.
  • If you need mechanical help and everyone is safe, call a reliable towing company or roadside assistance company.

7. Stay in your car while you are waiting. Once you have reached someone to help you, stay patient and stay in your vehicle. Most roadside assistance companies will not be able to help your vehicle without the driver present. On top of that, walking along a road that is not designed to accommodate pedestrians is a dangerous undertaking. Hundreds of pedestrians are killed this way each year.

If you do choose to walk, only do so if you know where you are going. Secure your vehicle and any valuables. Walking may be a good choice if you know you are out of gas in a familiar area and you know you are close to a gas station.

Bonus Tip: Be cautious. There are good people in the world, but it can be hard to weed them out from those with more nefarious intentions. If a stranger comes to offer help, it is best to stay in your locked car. You can roll down the window slightly to let them know you have help on the way.

It might be a good idea to save the number of a 24 hour towing company that services the areas where you most typically drive, just in case you are unable to use your phone’s data to look someone up in an emergency. Hopefully you will never need to use it, but it’s comforting to know it is there.