What to do if your car breaks down: Follow these 4 critical steps!

January 14, 2021

If your car breaks down on the road, remember these 4 critical steps!

A women inspecting her car's engine after a breakdown on the side of the road.

Electrical problems, engine problems, transmission problems, tire problems - there are dozens of scenarios that can cause your vehicle to break down while you're on the road. When it happens to you, it can be difficult to concentrate with all of the possibilities running through your head. You may even find yourself immediately thinking of the cost and hassle that goes along with repairing the problem. 

But when your vehicle fails while you're driving, a hassle can quickly become dangerous if you don't act quickly.  So what should you do if your car breaks down? What steps can you follow to prevent a bad situation from becoming worse? If you find yourself in a failing vehicle on the road, remember and follow these four critical steps. 

What to do if your car breaks down 

"What was that noise?"

"What is that smell?"

"How much is this going to cost me?" 

These are all valid and understandable questions that might run through your mind during a breakdown. But while you'll have to address those questions sooner rather than later, do your best to focus on these steps first. 

Step 1: Get out of harm's way

Regardless of what's going on with your car, your first priority is ensuring you and your passengers are in the safest possible position. 

Coast. Depending on what the malfunction is, you may only have the momentum of your vehicle to carry you off the road, which can leave you with little time to act. Do your best to steer towards the side of the road, or the shoulder, and park as far from the road as you safely can.

When you've come to a stop, angle your wheels away from the road, and engage the emergency brake.

Stay put. If you can't make it off of the road, don't exit the vehicle to push. Stay put and wait for help.  

If you are able to bring the vehicle to a safe place, make sure you and your passengers exit through the passenger doors, or the doors opposite the road. 

Note your location. After you've stopped and engaged the emergency brake, make note of your relative location. Look for exit signs, mile markers, and intersections. You'll need this information when calling for help. 

Step 2: Make you and your vehicle visible

After moving the vehicle to the safest possible place, you'll need to make your vehicle visible to other drivers. Following these steps ensures that other drivers are aware of your situation and gives them ample opportunity to give you the necessary space. 

Hazard lights. Whether you're able to get your car off the road or not, turn on your car's hazard lights. This button is usually fairly easy to spot, but isn't always located in the same place. Look for a large button with an orange or red triangle, sometimes in the center console or on the steering column. 

Fly a flag. In some cases, your hazard lights may not work or may not be bright enough to adequately signal other drivers. If you have some sort of brightly colored cloth, like a spare t-shirt or towel, you can signal your distress by tying it to the radio antenna or by closing it in the driver-side window or door. 

Prop open your hood. Propping the hood of your car open can also act as a distress signal to other drivers.

Where a vest. If you have a brightly colored reflective vest, make sure to put it on when you're outside the vehicle. Make sure to keep your own visibility in mind and don't stand in a place where your own vehicle might obstruct another driver's ability to see you.

Cones, flares, and reflectors. If you have traffic cones, flares, or some other sort of emergency signaling device, you can place them about six feet behind your car to give drivers ample time to take note of your vehicle and react. 

Remember, only exit the vehicle to open the hood or place signals if you are in a safe enough position to do so. 

If you don't regularly have something to signal distress on hand, these items are all necessary additions to a roadside emergency kit

Step 3: Call for help

Next, you'll need to call for assistance. 

Call the police, or 911. When your car dies, it can be tempting to focus on calling a tow truck or roadside assistance. However, depending on the situation, you may need to call 911 first. 

A vehicle blocking traffic at an intersection or in the middle of the road is incredibly dangerous and can easily lead to a collision. For that reason, you'll want to make sure that emergency services are notified as soon as possible. When you speak to the dispatch operator, make sure to tell them that your car is blocking traffic so that they know to send an officer to direct traffic immediately. 

If you don't have roadside assistance, the police will contact a towing company for you (at the owner's expense, of course). In any case, it is necessary to have an officer on site - hitching a vehicle to a tow truck in the middle of traffic is dangerous for the tow truck operator. 

Call roadside assistance. Roadside assistance services can be a lifesaver in a situation such as this. Whether you have service through your insurance or a third-party company, they can help you change a tire, bring you a tank of gas, give you a jump, or provide towing services if necessary. Again, if you are stuck in the middle of the road, make sure to give that information to the operator when you call. If they know you're in an emergency situation, they'll usually send a truck right away. 

Call a friend or family member. After you've contacted emergency services, contact a friend or family member to let them know what's going on. 

Don't flag other drivers. It can be dangerous and distracting to flag down other drivers, so avoid doing this at all costs. Wait on the police or your roadside assistance. 

Step 4: Assess the problem

It is generally recommended that you avoid exiting the vehicle to assess the problem. However, if you are far enough off the road and in a safe position, exit through the passenger side door, or the door that is opposite the road. If you have the opportunity to give your vehicle a quick inspection before help arrives, be on the lookout for symptoms in the following categories. 

Sights. Did you see anything out of the ordinary? Try to remember any warning lights on the dash that you may have seen flashing. Take note of any abnormal readings that your gauges, such as the engine temperature, might be telling you. 

Even an experienced mechanic may have trouble diagnosing problems by sight on the side of the road, but there are obvious things you can look for if you're able to safely pop the hood. For example, if there are fluids coating your engine, if a belt is missing or out of place, or if there are burn marks anywhere, take pictures for future reference. 

Sounds. Did you hear anything troubling? A pop, clang, bang, crunch, or any other sound that your vehicle shouldn't be making? While you may not be able to determine the exact source or cause, abnormal sounds can help you narrow it down.

Smells. Sometimes an unusual smell can be a powerful diagnostic tool. The smell of burning oil or fluids might indicate an engine problem while the unmistakable smell of electrical systems burning can tell a different story. 

Unfortunately, there typically isn't much you can do to get your car back in working order on the side of the road. However, in some cases, you may simply need to change a tire to get moving again. If this is the case, never attempt to change a tire on the side of the vehicle facing the road. If you are unable to position the vehicle in a safe direction, it's best to wait for help. 

After you've done what you can, make sure to jot this down in a blank page in your auto maintenance log while it's fresh in your mind, or keep a record in your phone. While there may not be an immediate solution available to you, having this information on hand can be helpful when help arrives, and may be important in the future when your vehicle is being repaired. 

How long can you leave your car on the side of the highway?

While no one wants to leave their car behind, sometimes you have no choice but to do so. Maybe you've got to get your kids home, or maybe the weather is bad enough that waiting for a tow truck just isn't possible. So if you do have to leave before you have a chance to tow your vehicle, how long are you allowed to let it stay there?
Most of the time, you'll have 24 hours to take care of it, assuming that the vehicle isn't blocking traffic or obstructing the road. To give yourself the best possible chance that it won't be towed, call the police department's non-emergency line and inform them of your situation. Of course, that is not necessarily a guarantee, but it can't hurt. 

Before you leave, make sure to take your valuables, engage the emergency brake, and lock the car. If you have paper and a pen, it can't hurt to leave a note! 

How can you prevent vehicle malfunctions and breakdowns? 

The best way to prevent such a scenario is to keep up with your regular vehicle maintenance, and keep a record of the tasks you've performed in your auto maintenance log. Staying on top of your auto maintenance can certainly be difficult to fit into a busy life, so keeping a record is essential. 

This advice goes double if you're planning a road trip. Even if you are up-to-date with your maintenance, make sure to check your fluids, tire pressure, and lights before a long road trip. 

An emergency triangle behind a car that has broken down.

Being stranded on the side of the road isn't just an inconvenience - it can be a dangerous situation. Whether you’re driving across town or across the country, Germania’s Roadside Assistance Coverage is there to lend a helping hand when you need it most. 

To learn how you can add this optional coverage to your Germania personal auto policy, or to learn more about our insurance products, call one of our trusted agents or request a quote online today

Up next: Having a reliable vehicle can help prevent breakdowns and unexpected problems. If you're shopping for a used vehicle, read our blog first and learn what to check for!

by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Specialist at Germania Insurance.

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