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What to Do if Your Vehicle Breaks Down on the Highway

It’s every driver’s worst nightmare: you’re traveling on the highway at 65 mph, and all of a sudden, your car starts overheating or the engine stops working. The last place anyone wants to break down is the highway. With cars traveling at high speeds in both directions, breaking down puts both you and other drivers at risk.

It’s easy to panic when other vehicles are whizzing by you after you pull over.

Staying calm and being prepared for this type of situation can make the entire ordeal less stressful.

Here are some tips to keep in mind if your vehicle breaks down while you’re on the highway.

Pull Over Safely

The first and most important thing is to get out of the travel lanes as quickly as possible without risking your safety. If possible, move into the shoulder so that you’re not blocking any lanes. Make note of your location for police and other responders. Turn your wheels away from traffic, and put on your emergency brake to prevent your car from rolling backwards.

If you’re able to pull over into the shoulder, make sure that you exit out of the passenger-side door and away from traffic. Stand far away from the vehicle – behind the guardrail if you can. There have been unfortunate cases of people pulling over and being struck or killed by other vehicles while in the shoulder. The goal is to stand as far away from traffic as possible to avoid this type of scenario.

You’ll also want to take steps to make yourself and your vehicle more noticeable to traffic.

  • Turn on your hazards
  • Set up reflective triangles, or use flares
  • Wear a reflective vest
  • Wave a flashlight

If you’re unable to move your vehicle from the travel lane and can’t safely exit your vehicle, stay put (with your seatbelt on), turn on your hazards and call emergency services.

Call for Help and Hang Back

Whether you’re stuck in a travel lane or on the shoulder, you’ll need to call for help. If you have roadside assistance through your insurance company, you can call them.

If you don’t have roadside assistance, you can call for a tow truck. Call 911 if there are injuries or you need further assistance.

Now is not the time to try and fix your vehicle, especially if you have no experience in this department. At the very least, have your vehicle towed someplace safe where you can work on it yourself. Typically, it’s best to just have your car towed to a mechanic and leave the repairs to the professionals.

If the problem is severe enough to make your car undrivable, then you should probably let the experts fix the issue (unless you’re a mechanic yourself or have lots of experience fixing cars).

Make note of any noises or unusual responses your car may have been making before it broke down. Did you notice any steam or smoke coming out from under the hood? Having this information on hand will help the roadside assistance technicians or mechanic offer you the best possible assistance.

Be Wary of Strangers

It’s possible that other drivers may pull over to ask if you’re okay or to offer their assistance. Most of these people are just good Samaritans trying to lend a helping hand, but it’s still important to be on your guard.

Unfortunately, there are some people who have ill intentions and try to take advantage of people in vulnerable situations.

If you’ve already called for help, you can politely inform other drivers that you’re waiting for assistance and thank them for their concern.

Be Prepared

Even with regular maintenance and care, breakdowns can happen. Something as simple as a nail puncturing the tire can make your car completely undriveable. If you’re prepared for this type of scenario, the entire ordeal will be far less stressful.

One great way to prepare is to carry an emergency kit in your vehicle. They’re generally inexpensive to buy and come with all of the essentials you need to deal with a breakdown.

You can also assemble your own kit.

To be on the safe side, consider keeping these items in your vehicle:

  • Cell phone with a charger
  • Jumper cables
  • Jack and flat board
  • Tire-pressure gauge
  • Notebook and pencils
  • Your vehicle’s operating manual
  • Emergency phone numbers
  • Flashlight with extra batteries
  • Flares or reflectors
  • Reflective vest or signal flag
  • Heavy gloves
  • Blanket
  • Candles with waterproof matches
  • Coolant
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Drinking water and unperishable food
  • Ice scraper and snow brush
  • Windshield-washer fluid with wiping cloth
  • Toolkit
  • Umbrella
  • First aid kit
  • Extra fuses

If your vehicle didn’t come with a spare tire, you should consider buying one and storing it in your trunk.

This may seem like a lot of items to keep in your car, but most are small and can easily fit inside a bag or hard case that can be stored in your trunk.

Use Common Sense

If your vehicle is broken down on the side of the road, use common sense to keep yourself and your other passengers safe.

  • Don’t stand close to travel lanes
  • Make sure that you’re visible to other motorists
  • Don’t try to flag down vehicles or hitchhike
  • Call 911 if you need assistance – don’t try to handle a dangerous situation on your own
  • Don’t get out of the car if you can’t get off the road
  • Don’t try to change a flat tire on the side of the vehicle exposed to traffic

Stay Calm

Finally – and most importantly – stay calm. It’s easy to panic or feel overwhelmed in this type of stressful situation, but it’s important to take a deep breath and keep your cool.

If you’re panicked, you may make irrational decisions or become paralyzed by fear. Give yourself a minute to collect your thoughts, breathe and call for help.

Breaking down on the highway can be a scary experience, but if you’re prepared and can keep a calm head, it won’t be as stressful as you imagined. Just pull over (if you can) and wait inside of your vehicle for help if you cannot exit safely.

November 11, 2019


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Picture this: You’re driving down the highway, when all of a sudden your check engine light comes on. Your car had been driving a little funny, but nothing too out of the ordinary. In a panic, you pull over off the road and call a tow truck.

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