Know What to Do and Not to Do if Your Vehicle Breaks Down and Leaves You Stuck on the Road
Image: NCCC

Know What to Do and Not to Do if Your Vehicle Breaks Down and Leaves You Stuck on the Road

it's easy to make a mistake in a high-stress situation that can put you in serious danger

September 2, 2021

Vehicle breakdowns are an unfortunate fact of life no matter which vehicle you drive. While many breakdowns can be prevented by taking simple precautions and performing preventive maintenance, some are sudden and can't be avoided with even the best planning. Whatever the case, you should know what to do to stay as safe as possible if you are unfortunate and suffer an unexpected vehicle breakdown.

always be prepared for a breakdown

Before you run into a problem, you should have a roadside safety kit consisting of flags, flares or reflective triangles just in case you need to mark your location in an emergency. Carry jumper cables or portable jump starter, a tire inflater, rope, gloves, a flashlight, a fire extinguisher appropriate for vehicles, and first aid supplies. A blanket is good for the winter to keep you warm, but it can be invaluable if you need something to keep you clean while changing a tire. Kitty litter is a great absorbent that can help you break free if stuck in snow or ice. You might consider carrying bottled water, but remember that bottled water can go bad when left in hot cars for long periods of time.

personal safety is your first priority

Whether you've been involved in a collision, have a flat tire, are waiting for an overheating engine to cool, or you've simply run out of gas, your personal safety should always be your first priority. If you neglect your personal safety, you can turn a simple inconvenience into a life-altering event. It can be easy to put your personal safety to the side when taking a few risks can get you on the road faster. But they aren't ever worth taking.

braking might not be the best thing to do

While you can't choose where your vehicle finally says that it's had enough, you may be able to guide your vehicle to a safer place by keeping your cool. If you are still in motion, you might instinctively brake when something unforeseen starts to happen. But that could be a mistake. If you are traveling at a decent speed and your engine loses most power, you can still use your momentum to pull far off the roadway or into a parking lot, even if it's into the dirt and you've just washed your car. If your first instinct is to brake, you're suddenly coming to a stop in the middle of the road with no power to move.

turn on some lights

At a minimum, you should turn on your hazard lights to alert other motorists to your situation. If you are in a location with limited visibility and decide to deploy flares or any other signaling device, do so as safely as possible. These items should be placed as far behind your vehicle as practically possible to give other motorists time to slow down. Never deploy flares in the presence of a fuel leak. You should know how to operate these devices before you break down. Trying to figure out how to use them on the side of the road isn't a good idea.

Keep the doors locked

When practical, keep your doors locked, even if your windows are down. It only takes a second for someone up to no good to open your vehicle. Having your doors locked, even if the windows are down, can give you a few extra seconds to realize that something is going on. In any case, you should be paying attention to your surroundings.

call for a ride or tow

If your car can't be driven, call for a tow truck or someone to take you to a safer place. If you have an auto club membership or a vehicle with roadside assistance, it might be a simple matter of waiting for rescue. If not, you'll need to reach out to someone who can come get you or a tow truck company. Don't forget that you'll need to know where you want your vehicle towed. You can always tow it home and then tow it again to a repair faculty once you've had time to research them. Even if your vehicle no longer has roadside assistance, you may be able to get a free tow from your car's manufacturer if you have it towed to and repaired by a dealership.

Call police if you are in a dangerous situation

If you are in a dangerous situation, such as in the middle of traffic, call the police and stay in the car. Don't be afraid to dial 911. They can assist you with traffic control and with getting a tow truck dispatched more quickly. They are there to help you with the immediate danger of helping to ensure your safety, not to help you push your car, change your tire, bring you gas or give you a ride.

If you are on a North Carolina highway or if you do not know which local jurisdiction you are in, you may call the North Carolina Highway Patrol by dialing *HP (*47) from your cell phone. State Troopers are great about stopping to assist disabled motorists.

stay inside the safety cage

You've just broken down, not embarked on a camping trip. So unless the vehicle is on fire or in danger of suddenly blasting into pieces, stay inside and forget about wandering around while you try to look like you know what you're doing. Your vehicle is designed to keep the occupants safe, but it can't do that if you're not inside. If you stay inside the car, even when it's hot, you are much safer than you'll be on the side of the road, even if you're well on the shoulder. A runaway vehicle or an errant piece of flying debris can end your life quickly. Too many stranded motorists die because they are out on the shoulder of the road.

When in your vehicle, keep your seatbelts on. The seatbelt will still help to protect you if your vehicle is struck by another vehicle.

making emergency roadside repairs

If you are making emergency repairs, use some common sense. Keep unneeded passengers inside the car and pull off the road as far as you can. You can still move the vehicle on a flat tire, albeit slowly. Go to an area that affords you plenty of space and safety. If you are planning on using a jack, make sure the vehicle is on a stable and level surface as the jack can sink into the ground and cause the vehicle to fall.

stopping to help someone

If you are stopping to help someone or someone is stopping to help you, the second vehicle should park about three car lengths or more behind the disabled vehicle with the wheels pointing sharply away from the shoulder, which is your escape route. If another vehicle hits it from behind, it should go in the direction of the front wheels. Never stand between the two vehicles if possible. If the second vehicle is hit and pushes it into yours, you have just become trapped between them.

accepting a ride from a stranger

Any time you accept a ride from a stranger, you're taking a big risk. Most good Samaritans are there to help you out. But some might want to do you harm. Never get into a car with someone you don't know, even if the person seems trusting. If you do decided to accept a ride from a stranger, don't be afraid to snap a photo of the vehicle, license plate and the person giving you a lift. Don't feel shy. Just say that you've heard horror stories before and just want your friends and family to know who you're with in case something happens to you.