Safety Tips to Remember When Your Car Breaks Down

A sedan is parked in a grass bank on the side of a road with its hood open, while the driver stands in front inspecting the engine.

It doesn’t matter if you just got your license or you’ve been driving for decades, chances are you’re going to have to deal with your car breaking down at some point.

Whether you’re interested in being prepared beforehand or you’re actively looking up how to handle an ongoing breakdown, it’s important to understand what steps must be taken to keep the driver, passengers, and those in other vehicles around you safe. Here are some tips to help you confidently handle a breakdown in the best manner possible.

Always Be Prepared for a Breakdown

If you haven’t had a breakdown yet, the first thing that you should do is prepare for the inevitable. Gather the most important items that you’ll want to have on hand when that check engine light comes on and you have to pull over indefinitely, including:

  • Water: You always want water available. You can even store some granola bars or other preserved food. Make sure to swap out your water and food stores regularly.
  • A flashlight: If you break down at night, you’re going to want a flashlight and extra batteries.
  • A blanket: If it’s cold out and your car won’t start, you’ll need a blanket to stay warm.
  • A first aid kit: If your breakdown involves an injury, having a first aid kit on hand is essential.
  • A cell phone charger: A charging cord and even a battery-powered portable charger can keep you connected to the world.
  • A quart of oil: If an oil leak or low oil is a problem, having a quart of the slick stuff close by can help you get to the nearest gas station or mechanic.
  • A rubber mallet: If you’re dealing with a blown tire, you may need a gentle nudge to remove it from the car and put on the spare.
  • A whistle: If a passenger or children are in the car, you’ll want personal safety equipment, such as a whistle or even pepper spray.
  • A knife: A knife is always important to have in an emergency and can be used for anything from cutting a seatbelt to personal safety.
  • A glass-breaker and seatbelt cutter: Again, in the event of a breakdown-related emergency, having a glass-breaker and seatbelt cutter may be critical.
  • Flares, flags, and reflectors: If it’s dark out, having flags, flares, and triangle reflectors can help alert others to your presence.
  • Roadside assistance information: You’ll want roadside assistance information handy, either in your phone, written down, or both.

By having the right gear on hand, you can help every breakdown go as smoothly and safely as possible.

Get Your Car Off of the Road

At times a breakdown will give you no choice but to leave your car stranded in the middle of the road. However, often you’ll be able to move your car, at least a little bit. When this is the case, always steer toward the shoulder of the road. Try to do so in a gentle manner that will avoid adding an off-road accident to your unfolding predicament. 

In addition, if you have a child or another person in the car, alert them to the situation and ask them to sit still and remain quiet as you slow down and maneuver to safety. If a pet is in the vehicle, make sure they’re well-contained before starting to drive so that they won’t interfere with this process, either.

Call for Help

Once your car has stopped moving (ideally on the side of the road), call emergency responders if someone is hurt or an accident has taken place. Otherwise, call roadside assistance or a local mechanic and request professional help.

While you wait for help to arrive, be very careful not to put yourself in further danger if others offer to help you. If a stranger stops, lock your doors and crack the window to speak to them. This is especially important if you have children in the car. In addition, inform the children of the importance of remaining in the car and keeping the doors locked.

Signal to Other Drivers That You’re In Trouble 

If you cannot get professional assistance, you may need to signal to other drivers for help. Even if help is coming, you will want to alert others to your presence so that they can slow down and avoid causing further harm. You can do this by:

  • Turning on your hazard lights.
  • Popping the hood of your car.
  • Putting flares, flags, or reflectors on the road on either side of your vehicle.

The recommended precautions that require being outside should only be done if it’s safe to exit the vehicle. In addition, once again, if someone stops, talk to them through the window and inform children to remain quiet and in the car with the doors locked.

Stay With Your Vehicle

One of the most important things to remember is that you should always stay with your vehicle in the event of a breakdown. Thousands of pedestrians are killed and tens of thousands injured every year by walking along the road. 

It’s also important to stay still if you or someone else has been injured. For multiple reasons, remaining with your car is always a wise course of action as you wait for help.

Refrain from Performing Auto-Repair on the Scene

It may be tempting to try to solve your breakdown right there on the side of the road. However, unless you’re dealing with a spare tire or adding a little extra oil, it’s recommended that you wait until you’re at an auto repair shop to diagnose the issue.

Once your vehicle has been moved to a safer location, professionals will be able to use OBD1 and OBD2 diagnostic tools and apps to pinpoint the problem and address it without danger.

Assess the Situation

In a more general sense, and with all of the previous recommendations in mind, if you experience a breakdown, it’s essential that you take the time to meaningfully assess your situation. 

Resist the urge to jump out of your car or start waving down passing vehicles seconds after you come to a stop. Instead, consider your options, avoid solutions that require on-scene repairs or leaving your car, go through your breakdown gear, and make sure that children are well aware of what’s going on and as safe as possible.

Try to Prevent Breakdowns

Finally, remember that you can proactively solve the problem of a breakdown by avoiding it entirely in the first place. For instance, you can:

  • Always take your car into the shop on time for scheduled maintenance, such as brakes, oil changes, and fluid checks.
  • Conduct easy DIY car repairs and maintenance to keep everything in tip-top shape — and even save you money while you’re at it.
  • Look for signs of impending breakdowns, such as strange noises, unusual smells, or shaking.

By working to avoid problems or, at the least, address them before they become worse, it can help you minimize the number of breakdowns that you experience.