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Driving Advice & Safety

What To Do When Your Car Breaks Down

January 25, 2024

9 min read

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Sam Plant

Content Writer

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Man facing forwards at broken down car with reflective triangle

Nothing makes a driver break into nervous sweat like the prospect of breaking down on the road. Whilst you might assume it's as simple as giving a breakdown provider a quick ring, it's not always so straightforward. Are you sure you know what to do in the event of a breakdown? The only way to be totally certain is to prepare—which is why we've compiled a guide on what to do when your car breaks down.

Here, we're going to look at exactly what you should do if you break down on a motorway, dual carriageway or minor road. We'll also include some top tips and advice to help you stay safe and make the situation just a bit more bearable!

Breaking down on a motorway or dual carriageway

White range rover parked on hard shoulder

Find a safe place

If you're driving on a motorway or dual carriageway and you start to feel like your car is on the verge of breaking down—e.g., it's emitting strange noises, there's a lot of smoke, or you're starting to lose control—then it's absolutely vital that you get yourself to a safe place. By doing so, you're making it easier for breakdown services to reach you, and you're keeping other road users safe by taking your vehicle out of the way.

It's important that you slow down before you think about pulling over. Don't make any sudden movements and give the road users behind you plenty of time to prepare. If you're on a motorway, the safest place you can park is on the hard shoulder. Otherwise, it's best to park as far to the left as possible.

Figure out where you are

Whilst it might seem pretty obvious, it's important that you know where you are once you've come to a stop. If you're getting in touch with a breakdown provider or local garage, you're going to need to give them your location. As such, you should try to take note of the nearest exit and any other landmarks you might see.

Make yourself visible

Broken down vehicles can be a serious hazard to other road users, especially if they're not easy to spot. As such, you should turn on your hazard lights to inform other road users that you've come to a stop. This is especially important if you're driving at night!

Depending on what you've got in your boot, you might have a high-visibility jacket that, you should consider wearing when you come to getting out of the vehicle—it will help make you more visible to other road users.

Get out of the vehicle

Once you've pulled over onto the hard shoulder or far left of the road, you need to be very careful getting out of the vehicle. You should avoid getting out on the driver's side—if you do, you put yourself at risk with the oncoming traffic. Instead, climb over to the passenger's side on the left and get out that way. Once you're out, make sure you're clear of the vehicle—don't dally around near it!

If you have passengers, you should also direct them to get out of the vehicle in the same manner. Ignore the temptation to stay inside. With your vehicle in such close proximity to high-speed oncoming traffic, you run the risk of your parked vehicle being hit. As such, you should get yourself and your passengers to safety—anywhere far from the road is fine, or behind the safety barrier.

Got pets with you? In most cases, it's safer to keep them inside the vehicle. Otherwise, you run the risk of them running into the motorway or dual carriageway. If you do keep your pet inside your vehicle, crack the windows open for ventilation and, if possible, give them drinking water.

Contact breakdown services

If you've broken down on a dual carriageway or motorway, it's vital that you don't attempt to fix the problem yourself. Even if you're pretty confident that you know what the issue is, it's still a dangerous situation. What you should do instead is wait for the experts to arrive.

If you have a membership with a breakdown provider, or your insurer provides cover, you need to get in touch with them as soon as you've stopped and taken the above precautions. You'll find their contact details in your breakdown manual or online. Meanwhile, if your provider has an app, you'll be able to get in touch that way. Don't have a membership? Skip down to our section on “What if I don't have breakdown cover?”.

If your mobile has run out of battery, don't panic—you'll be able to use one of the SOS phones that are located every mile on motorways. Once you've found one, it will get you in touch with either the Highways Agency or the Police.

What if I'm on a smart motorway?

Smart motorways are slightly more dangerous to break down on than regular motorways. That's because, unlike regular motorways, they don't have hard shoulders for you to pull up on. If you do end up breaking down on a smart motorway, then you should attempt to either leave at the next junction or get to the nearest Emergency Refuge Area (ERA).

If that isn't possible, you'll have to pull up on the far left-hand lane. When doing so, slow down, signal and give other road users plenty of time to figure out what you're doing.

Set off carefully

If the breakdown services have managed to fix your vehicle and have given you the all-clear to get back on the roads, you can finally set off. Now, it's vital that you take great care when leaving the hard shoulder or left-hand lane. Check your mirrors and blind spots before you set off, slowly build up your speed and rejoin traffic once there's a clear gap of traffic.

If breakdown services are unable to solve the problem, they will tow you and your vehicle to either the nearest local garage or a location of your choosing (depending on your insurance cover type or membership).

Breaking down on a minor road

Warning triangle on quiet country road

Whilst there's certainly less danger attached to breaking down on a minor road, it certainly doesn't mean you should act with reckless abandon!

Find a safe place

Started to feel like your vehicle is on its last legs? If you're on a minor road, you should attempt to pull up at a nearby side road or a car park. Otherwise, try to pull up on the far left-hand side of the road. Try to ensure there's enough space for other road users to get past you—and for the breakdown services to park up.

Make yourself visible

If you have one, and it's safe to do so, you should place a reflective triangle approximately 45 metres behind your vehicle on the same side of the road. This will give motorists plenty of time to spot you and alter their speed if need be. You'll note that we didn't include this under 'breaking down on motorways'—that's because on motorways, you run the risk of getting in the way of high-speed oncoming traffic. On a minor road, it's usually a lot safer.

As with breaking down on a motorway, you should turn on your hazard warning lights and put on a high-visibility jacket (if you have one) when you get out of the vehicle. If the conditions are dark, wet or foggy, you should switch on your sidelights—it's absolutely vital that other road users are able to see you.

Get out of the vehicle

Typically speaking, you should only get out of your vehicle if there's a safe place to head to. If there isn't, and you don't think you're in immediate danger in the vehicle, stay there until breakdown services reach you. Similarly, if the road you're on isn't very wide or doesn't have adequate room for you get out, you should stay put.

Of course, if you do need to get out, take care. If it's particularly busy, follow the advice we listed in our motorway section, and get out of your vehicle on the passenger's side.

Call breakdown services (if you need to)

If you're dealing with something like a flat tyre, and you know how to deal with it, then you could go about repairing it yourself—as long as it's safe and clear for you to do so. If you're not entirely sure what the problem is, however, you shouldn't mess around with it. You don't want to make matters worse, do you? It's much safer for all parties involved if you leave it to the experts when unsure.

Once you get in touch with breakdown services, be sure to tell them any pertinent details, such as if you're pregnant or you have children with you. You shouldn't have to wait too long for them to get to you.

Set off carefully

If you're good to go, be extra careful when setting off. If you used a reflective triangle, be sure to fetch it before you leave. Make full use of your mirrors and observations before you move, then set off once it's clear.

Getting in touch with your breakdown provider

Yellow AA van behind black range rover

If it's your first breakdown, you might be wondering how you should go about getting in touch with a breakdown provider. Typically, you should have some sort of breakdown cover included in your insurance policy, though it will vary depending on your provider.

If you have a membership with a breakdown provider already, you'll usually be able to find the relevant contact information in your membership guide or online—or, a mobile app, if they have one. Now, if you know you wouldn't be able to access this kind of information in the event of a breakdown, be sure to note these details down and keep them in your car or on you so you don't have to worry.

When you do get in touch with your provider, they'll typically ask you to provide:

  • Your full name and membership number
  • Your location
  • Your contact number
  • The reason for the breakdown (if you know)

When they finally reach you, they'll attempt to repair your vehicle then and there. If they're unsuccessful, they'll either provide:

  • Roadside assistance: in which they'll tow you to the nearest garage, or
  • Vehicle recovery: in which they'll tow you to any location of your choosing

What if I don't have breakdown cover?

Yellow and white tow truck with red car on back

It's not the end of the world if you don't have a breakdown policy in place. If this happens to you, you have a few choices up your sleeve:

  • Get in touch with a local garage: they'll usually be able to come out and tow your vehicle to their garage.
  • Start a policy with a breakdown provider: almost all providers will allow you to ask for assistance and start a policy then and there.
  • Use an emergency phone: in this case, it will usually be Highways Agency who will get involved.

Obviously, the cost of your recovery will vary depending on your chosen method. As such, it's important that you prepare for this from now on. If you don't want to sort out breakdown cover, then note down the contact details for local garages near to where you usually travel. You might have breakdown cover included in your insurance policy, so it's certainly worth looking into. Alternatively, you could look into becoming a member of one of the many breakdown providers available in the UK.

Example breakdown services include:

What to consider from now on

Red car put on back of tow truck

As you can see, there are a lot of factors involved when your car breaks down. If you want to make things easier for the future you stuck on the side of the road with a broken down vehicle, then you might want to consider taking the steps below…

Prepare your essentials

You never know when your car might break down. Instead of just dealing with it when the time comes, why not plan ahead and make sure you've got what you need if the worst case scenario does indeed arise?

For starters, you should check you've got all the essential items you might need in your car—ranging from details for breakdown services to reflective triangles to food and water. Think about what you might need in the event of a breakdown, and pack any relevant items that come to mind. Don't pack too much though—you've only got so much space!

Sort out breakdown cover

In case it hasn't hit you just yet, having a breakdown provider on speed dial will make your life much easier in the event of a breakdown. If you've not got breakdown cover included in your insurance policy, you should look into becoming a member of a breakdown service. When looking, you should consider the following:

Do you need person or vehicle cover?

If you want cover for any car that you're travelling in (regardless of you being the driver or passenger), then you'll want person cover. If, on the other hand, you only want cover for your vehicle (for you and anyone else driving), vehicle cover will be your best bet.

Are you looking for roadside assistance or vehicle recovery?

Roadside assistance is the most basic of breakdown covers. It means that your car will either be fixed roadside or towed to the nearest local garage to be fixed. As the cheapest option, it's a popular choice for many. Vehicle recovery, by comparison, means that your vehicle—and its passengers—will be towed to a location of your choice. Though the more expensive option, it does at least mean you can get where you need to be.

We'd recommend shopping around to get the best offer. Compare breakdown providers and their policies, then, decide what's best for you, your budget and future you. (Think of how you might feel with a certain cover type if you've broken down!)

Maintain your vehicle

If you let things slip with your vehicle, it won't be much of a surprise if it does end up breaking down. Look after your vehicle properly and it will look after you. With that in mind, we'd recommend you take your car in for frequent check-ups at your local garage.

You might find it handy to conduct weekly or monthly check-ups yourself. Regular maintenance and check-ups can ensure you don't fall prey to common causes of breakdowns. So, keep an eye on your tyres, monitor your fuel level and be sure to head on over to your local garage if you see warning lights on your dashboard. It's always better to be safe than sorry!

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