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What to do if you break down

Carlton Boyce / 21 December 2016 ( 02 February 2018 )

What should you do if your car breaks down? Here is our guide to staying safe while help is on its way.

Car that has broken down
If you can, pull over in a safe place and put your car’s hazard warning lights on

Any car can suffer a breakdown and the results can be catastrophic, which is why we offer the reassurance and cover of our own breakdown cover.

But no matter how good the cover, you're going to have to wait to be rescued, even if it’s only a matter of minutes*.

So what should you do if you suffer a breakdown? Here's our guide to staying safe while help is on its way.

Avoiding a breakdown

The most common cause of a breakdown is a flat battery, generally caused by a lack of simple preventative maintenance. 

So make a point of checking that the battery terminals are tight, that they are protected by a thin layer of grease (Vaseline is ideal) and the electrolyte is topped up (if appropriate, see your car’s handbook for details) - then you will greatly reduce the inconvenience of an unplanned halt.

Other common causes are simple and easy to prevent. So if you check your tyre pressures once a week, along with oil and water levels, you’ll be going a long way to keeping mobile.

Filling up with the wrong fuel – diesel in a petrol car and vice versa – is surprisingly easy to do, especially if you drive both regularly. A simple reminder stuck inside the fuel filler cap might help, or you can buy simple gadgets to help prevent it from car accessory retailers.

Read our guide to basic car maintenance

If you do break down:

What if, despite your best efforts, something does happen to leave you stranded at the side of the road? Here’s what you should do to keep you and your family safe.
  • If you can, pull over in a safe place and put your car’s hazard warning lights on. If it is dark, leave your car’s sidelights switched on too.

  • A high-visibility vest or coat is a requirement in some countries, although not the UK. If you have one (and they only cost a few pounds), put it on before you leave the car.

  • If it is safe to do so, place a warning triangle 50 metres behind your car to alert other road users to the fact you are stranded.

  • Try and wait somewhere safe. On quieter roads this might mean staying in your car but on busy roads and dual carriageways it will generally be safer to get out of your car and wait somewhere away from the traffic.

Tips for dealing with aggressive drivers

Breaking down on a motorway

Breaking down on a motorway is probably the most dangerous situation you will face in your motoring career. If you are unlucky enough to do so, this is what to do:

  • If you suspect your car is misbehaving, leave at the next exit or pull into a service station as soon as you get an inkling something is amiss.

  • If you car stops completely, you must pull as far left onto the hard shoulder as you can, turning your wheels to the left when you have stopped. This ensures that if another vehicle does hit your car, it won't push it into the road, causing another accident.

  • Don’t try to deploy your hazard warning triangle as the risks far outweigh the benefits.

  • Immediately get out of the car via the passenger side and walk backwards for at least 50 metres or so behind the safety barrier. Only call for help from the safety of the embankment and do not return to your car for any reason until help arrives.

  • Animals are safer in the car than outside, so leave them where they are for the time being.

  • Do not try to fix the problem yourself. It’s just too dangerous.

But what if you are on a motorway and can’t get to the hard shoulder? This is an urgent, life-threatening incident so you must:

  • Turn on your hazard warning lights.

  • Stay in your car with your seatbelts on until you are positive it is safe to get out. Traffic slows down rapidly on a motorway if there is an obstruction, so you shouldn’t have to wait too long.

  • Get behind a barrier before you dial 999 to ask the police for help.

Planning a long journey? Read our six tips for driving long distances.

Drivers or others with disabilities

If you, or any of your passengers, have a disability that prevents you from making a safe exit from the vehicle, you should stay put with your seatbelt and hazard warning lights on and call 999 for help.

Calling for help

Now you’re safe, you can call for help. If your car is in a safe place then just call your breakdown company (you have stored the number in your mobile phone, haven’t you?). However, if your car is causing an obstruction then you should call the police via 999 first.

  • If you are on a motorway, the best advice is to use the dedicated telephones that are provided rather than your mobile phone. Doing so will alert the operator to your precise location, helping them get to you as quickly as possible. The nearest phone can be found by following the arrows on the signs on the hard shoulder.

  • Otherwise use any distinguishing features to help the emergency services locate you. Motorways have a series of blue marker signs that will enable them to pinpoint your location with ease.

  • Most bridges, even on smaller back roads, have an identifying number too and company premises are easy to trace, making them ideal pointers.

  • Don’t forget to face the traffic while you are on the phone; it’s easy to get distracted and forget about the danger other road users pose.

If you are parked in an unsafe place or have children or vulnerable people with you, then say so. The breakdown company will then prioritise your call and get help to you even faster.

Should you install a dash cam?

Once the problem has been fixed

You car will hopefully be repaired at the side of the road. If it is, don’t forget that rejoining the motorway is just as dangerous as leaving it, so build up speed on the hard shoulder before rejoining the main carriageway.

*Our average call out time is around 45 minutes based on analysis carried out between January and December 2014.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.