8 Steps to Take When Your Car Breaks Down

August 1, 2017 - Updated November 14, 2018
Handling a vehicle failure while on the road shouldn’t be cause for panic, especially when you know ahead of time what to do.

What should you - and shouldn’t you - do when your car breaks down on the highway? On a rural road far from home? At night?

Surprise! Your car won’t start. Or maybe it’s a flat tire as you’re traveling for the holidays. A dead car battery, empty fuel tank, or a dashboard lit up brighter than a Christmas tree are just a few of the inconveniences that can leave even the most prepared and careful driver stranded and in need of roadside assistance. In 2015, AAA reported rescuing 32 million drivers. Car breakdowns happen to (almost) everyone.

So, what to do if your vehicle breaks down?

First and foremost, don’t panic. The more you know, the better prepared you’ll be. That said, the following advice is offered to hopefully improve your preparedness, increase your safety, and reduce your feelings of fear, panic, or anxiety if you find yourself stranded and in need of roadside service.

8 steps to take when your car breaks down

1. Be Prepared

  • 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.

  • 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

  • Have roadside assistance

    Roadside assistance coverage is usually an option on most auto insurance policies and helps provide coverage and services when your vehicle breaks down. Roadside service usually includes towing, battery jump start, flat tire assistance, locksmith and lockout service, fuel delivery, and winching. As benefits and services can vary from company to company, do your research to find which services suit your needs best.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. Know Your Location

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.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. Use Common Sense and Don't Panic

Handling a car breakdown while on the road shouldn’t be cause for panic, especially when you know what to do. Roadways are dangerous places for people on foot. The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration reports that 5,987 pedestrians were killed in 2016 up from 5,495 in 2015. Your safety (and that of anyone with you) should be your top priority.

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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