What To Do When Your Car Breaks Down

Follow our step-by-step guide for what to do when your car breaks down on the side of the road. Always remember to turn on your hazard warning lights to alert other drivers when your car breaks down. Pull off to the side of the road and safely exit your vehicle if you can to pop your hood, as this will also alert other drivers to pass you with caution. If you're a AAA member or your car insurance policy has roadside assistance service, calling them for help is the easiest thing to do when your car breaks down.

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Rachel Bodine graduated from college with a BA in English. She has since worked as a Feature Writer in the insurance industry and gained a deep knowledge of state and countrywide insurance laws and rates. Her research and writing focus on helping readers understand their insurance coverage and how to find savings. Her expert advice on insurance has been featured on sites like PhotoEnforced, All...

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Written by Rachel Bodine
Insurance Feature Writer Rachel Bodine

Leslie Kasperowicz holds a BA in Social Sciences from the University of Winnipeg. She spent several years as a Farmers Insurance CSR, gaining a solid understanding of insurance products including home, life, auto, and commercial and working directly with insurance customers to understand their needs. She has since used that knowledge in her more than ten years as a writer, largely in the insurance...

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Reviewed by Leslie Kasperowicz
Farmers CSR for 4 Years Leslie Kasperowicz

UPDATED: Aug 20, 2021

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There are few feelings in life worse than driving in traffic and realizing your car isn’t going to make it, whether it’s due to flat tires, or mechanical issue, or any number of other possible vehicle breakdown causes. If you start noticing your engine light flickering, your gas meter dropping, your engine sputtering, and you hear some strange noises being from your vehicle, chances are you are about to break down. While easier said than done, the best thing you can do in that situation is to not panic.

According to a recent survey by Allstate, when people break down on the side of the road, 47% feel overwhelmed and helpless, 62% get anxious, 52% get angry, and 36% get scared. 40% of the people surveyed said that their first instinct is to immediately call for help. While calling for help is necessary for many situations, it might not be the best thing to do right off the bat.

What steps should you take after breaking down on the side of the road?

While it can be very nerve-racking, you must remain calm to keep yourself safe. If possible, the following eight steps should be followed (in order) to guide you through this stressful time.

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#1 Turn On Your Hazard Lights

When you flick on your hazard lights, drivers behind you will recognize that something is wrong. You should keep your hazard warning lights on the whole duration of time your car is broken down on the side of the road, from the moment you realize something is wrong until it is towed.

#2 Pull Off To The Side Of The Road If You Can

Try to pull over far away from any curves in the road behind you. This will allow you to easily get back onto the road and will also make you more visible to oncoming traffic.

If you can’t get over to the side of the road, make sure you do not get out of your vehicle. Being stuck in the middle of the road is scary, but trying to get out of a vehicle and run away to safety across the busy highway is insane. If you can, turn on any interior and exterior lights, you have to increase visibility. Most highways are heavily patrolled, so chances are you won’t be a “sitting duck” for long.

#3 Alert Motorists

As stated above, you should put on your hazard lights immediately. This should make your situation obvious to most motorists behind you. To further help your cause (after you are out of your vehicle), you should place flares or neon warning triangles around your car. They often come with your car’s safety or emergency kit. You could also hang a white cloth or a white piece of paper outside your driver’s side window. This will let people know that you are in trouble and that they can proceed around you.

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#4 Prevent Your Car From Moving (Rolling)

Turn your wheel away from the road and put your emergency brake on. This is especially helpful if your car is facing downward on a hill. You do not want your car rolling out into traffic and causing even more problems.

#5 Carefully Get Out Of The Car

As stated earlier, if you were not able to pull over to the side of the road and are still in the middle of the road, stay in the car and wait for help. If you are on the shoulder or the side of the road, make sure there are no cars coming up fast behind you before getting out. If you are on the right side of the road, climb over and get out of the car on the passenger side. If you are on the left side of the road, you can get out through the driver’s side door.

Trust your gut instinct. If it seems too dangerous to get out of the car in your current situation, keep your seat belt buckled and stay put! Like said above, highways and major roadways are heavily patrolled and help is most likely already on the way before you even reach for your cell phone.

#6 Call For Help

Other than calling your monthly insurance provider, if your car has “OnStar” or some other type of roadside assistance emergency breakdown provider, try contacting them. If not, use your mobile phone to call up a towing company or AAA. If the situation is serious, call 9-1-1. If your phone is dead or you do not have a phone on your person, a passing by motorist might be able to call for help. If no methods of communication are available, you will have to wait patiently for a highway patrol or a policeman to drive by.

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#7 Pop Your Hood

You can either pop your hood before or after you get out of your vehicle. A popped hood is one of the universal signs of a broken down car. When drivers see a popped hood on a car in the breakdown lane, they know to pass with caution.

#8 Patiently Wait For Help

Stay near your car, but safely away from speeding traffic or the busy highway, as you wait for help to arrive. You might be tempted to walk to the next exit for help, but realize that this is not only dangerous but often times illegal. You also do not want to have your abandoned car towed when you are away seeking help. As stated many times above, help is most likely already on the way, so the best thing you can do is wait patiently for it to arrive. Now onto the next thing – finding out if your auto insurance covers a rental when your car breaks down.

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