What to Do When Your Car Breaks Down
Nobody likes to have their car break down or be stranded on the highway. However, it can happen to the best of us, as even owning a brand new vehicle is not a 100% guarantee that it will never happen to you. After all, the highest quality automobile is still a mechanical contraption designed and built by humans (okay, with a few robots thrown in for good measure), to take you from point A to point B in relative comfort.
As such, you should be aware there may come a time that you will be the unfortunate victim of a breakdown. If this happens, you will need to take some basic precautions to minimize damage to your vehicle and, most importantly, keep yourself and your fellow passengers safe. Your reaction to what is happening to your vehicle in the early moments of a vehicle breakdown is crucial to your safety.
First of all, remain calm. If you are traveling on a multi-lane highway, you may have to cross several lanes of traffic to get safely to the side of the road. Using your turn signal, indicate your intention to pull over. Check for traffic in the lane(s) you need to merge into then pull off the road safely and away from other traffic. Do not pull into the carpool lane because it is “empty” or “convenient,” even if you have the minimum 2-person-per-vehicle requirement for occupying that lane! Doing so all too frequently adds another term to the breakdown scenario - the term being “deadly.”
Determine the basic nature of the vehicle problem – flat tire/blowout; running out of fuel; engine stalled, or an unknown cause; if you think there is a possible fire or worse yet actually see flames – get out of the vehicle and away from it as quickly as possible once you have stopped. Make sure you take your passengers with you! Remember, personal items can be replaced, the kids and pets can’t. If there is a fire, call 911.
Call the Auto Club for assistance – In California, call 1.800.400.4AAA (1.800.400.4222); in other states and Canada, call 1.800.AAA.HELP (1.800.222.4357); for members who are speech and hearing impaired, the TDD 24-Hour Roadside Assistance number in the United States and Canada is 1.800.955.4TDD (1.800.955.4833). Get professional help “on the way” as quickly as possible. Even if you don’t have a real clue as to why you are sitting on the side of the road, being able to describe what happened, and what you see now can be of real assistance to the emergency road service provider dispatch personnel in getting the right type of help to you, as quickly as possible. Their job is to help you by getting aid to you in a timely manner. The best description you can give them regarding the nature of your vehicle breakdown makes the job a lot easier.
If your vehicle breaks down at night – pull over in a well-lit area if available, as far away from traffic lanes as possible for your protection. Use your vehicle’s emergency flashers. The safest place for you to wait is in the car. If you absolutely insist on getting out of your vehicle, then you may wish to set up reflective highway markers (red triangles) or other types of warning devices to alert oncoming drivers of your presence. Be careful when setting up emergency markers that you don’t wander into oncoming traffic lanes and become a statistic yourself.
Determine if it is safe for you to open your vehicle’s hood – feel the hood for presence of fire or extreme heat (too hot to touch!). If you can feel scorching heat, DO NOT open the hood! If you see flames under the vehicle or emanating anywhere near your vehicle, get away from it!
Know how to open your vehicle’s hood. Newer model year vehicles have an internal hood release, usually down by the kick panel on the driver’s side, or as a pull lever attached to the bottom side of the instrument panel. Once you release the hood with this lever, you will need to release the secondary hood safety latch (usually accessible) at the front of the vehicle. You may have to raise the hood slightly to gain access to this latch with your fingers.
Hood prop rods – some vehicles have them, while others don’t use them. Determine ahead of time how to support your vehicle’s hood if you have the prop rod version. Be sure you can reach, support, and raise the hood high enough to engage the end of the prop rod. Most hoods are heavy and frequently not easily held open with one hand. Be sure you use the correct rod support location for the prop rod. Do not use a broom stick or a rake handle because “it works.” Even if your vehicle’s hood is designed to stay open without a visible means of support, be sure the hood is open all the way (and that the springs/torsion bar will in fact hold it open!) A partially-open hood can come crashing down by its own weight, often painfully pinning the driver (or their fingers) underneath. Make sure the hood is properly supported before you stick your head underneath to see “what went wrong.”
If you feel you are in danger because of the location where your vehicle broke down (bad area of town, dark and deserted highway, you’re alone or traveling with small children), call 911 for assistance. Do not get out of your vehicle. Lock your doors, close all the windows for your safety, and wait for help to arrive.
If you feel it is safe for you to do some exploratory investigation as to the cause of a vehicle malfunction, have a flashlight with good batteries handy. Get a little light on the subject! Nothing is perhaps as hard as trying to identify a problem under the hood of a vehicle when it’s dark outside (why is it that Murphy’s Law always seems to cause your car to break down late at night?). A good flashlight is very handy during the day as well. Many times it is fairly easy to spot a broken hose or fan/accessory belt with some additional artificial lighting. Don’t forget to also look underneath the vehicle with a flashlight. Telltale signs of a coolant leak (usually green, but may be red), transmission fluid leak (can be varying shades of red) or an engine oil leak (brown to dark brown are typical colors) may help pinpoint the area of malfunction.
Since a vehicle breakdown is never scheduled, it is important for drivers to be prepared for breakdowns or emergencies by outfitting their vehicle with a fully charged cell phone, food, water, tools, blankets, appropriate foot gear, clothing and other gear in a roadside emergency kit. If traveling to snowy areas, tire chains, and basic tools to affix the chains are also recommended. An emergency kit is also very beneficial should you become lost. Properly stocked, an emergency kit will help occupants possibly survive, until help arrives.