What to Do When Your Car Breaks Down On The Side of the Road

Don’t panic! Here’s what to do when your car breaks down - turn on your hazard lights and safely pull over to the side of the road, engage your parking brake, and call for assistance. Make sure you call a friend or family member to let them know where you are. If you have roadside assistance, you may be able to call for a free tow truck to the nearest repair shop when your car breaks down on the side of the road.

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Natasha McLachlan is a writer who currently lives in Southern California. She is an alumna of California College of the Arts, where she obtained her B.A. in Writing and Literature. Her current work revolves around insurance guides and informational articles. She truly enjoys helping others learn more about everyday, practical matters through her work.

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Laura Walker graduated college with a BS in Criminal Justice with a minor in Political Science. She married her husband and began working in the family insurance business in 2005. She became a licensed agent and wrote P&C business focusing on personal lines insurance for 10 years. Laura serviced existing business and wrote new business. She now uses her insurance background to help educate...

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Reviewed by Laura Walker
Former Licensed Agent

UPDATED: Nov 5, 2020

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Virtually everyone will experience a breakdown at some point. Regardless of how well you maintain your car, these situations aren’t always avoidable. Although it’s frustrating and maybe even scary, with the correct steps you can steer clear of a worst-case scenario. Whether you have motor club to rely on, or need to call a tow truck directly, there are a few things you can do to make the whole ordeal less exasperating.

Immediate Steps After a Breakdown Occurs

  1. Safely Pull Over
    Wherever your breakdown occurs, whether it’s on a busy highway or a back road, your first course of action should always be to pull over to the right shoulder. If necessary, it may be a good idea to coast along the road until you’re in an area of high-visibility. You should avoid stopping in a curve or by a hill if you are able to do so.
  2. Turn Your Hazard Lights On
    Once you have stopped your vehicle and ensured that it is completely out of the flow of traffic, turn on your hazards and leave them running until a tow truck arrives. Turn off and unplug anything else that could run down your car battery since you may have to wait an hour or more for a tow. The only exception here is if it is absolutely necessary to charge your phone. It’s better to run your battery down a little than to be stuck with a dead phone and no way to contact help.
  3. Turn Wheels Towards the Road and Engage Your Parking Break
    Next, cut your wheels so that you are turned towards the road and put your parking (emergency) brake on. This will prevent your vehicle from rolling off the roadway if your brakes fail.
  4. Call for Assistance
    Use your cell phone to call for help and stay in your car. Although being in a non-running vehicle on the side of a busy road isn’t a safe place to be, being outside of your vehicle is even more dangerous and should be avoided, if possible.
  5. Update Friends or Family
    After you have called your motor club provider or a tow truck, try to call a friend or family member to come sit with you until a tow truck arrives if you are alone at night or in a bad area. Not only will you be safer and less likely to be a victim of a robbery by having someone else with you, but your vehicle will also be easier for the tow truck to find if there are two cars parked on the shoulder instead of one. Be sure to have your friend park in front of you, not behind you. The tow truck will need to pull up behind your automobile in order to load it, so it’s best if nothing is in the way.

On the other hand, if your car breaks down suddenly in the road and you aren’t able to remove it from the roadway, you’ll need to take a slightly different course of action. You will still need to turn on your blinkers to indicate to other drivers that your vehicle isn’t running. Don’t put your park brake on, but stay in your seat with your seatbelt on. Although it may seem counterintuitive to stay in a dead vehicle in the middle of the road, it’s actually safer than getting out of the car. Your vehicle is built to withstand some degree of impact, so as long as another driver slows down before they hit you, you should be okay. Furthermore, if you get out of your vehicle, it’s harder for other motorists to see you, which increases the likelihood that you could get hurt. Plus, you’ll put yourself in danger twice since you will have to cross the roadway to get back to your car when the tow truck arrives. Be safe. Stay in your vehicle.

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Using Motor Club for Roadside Assistance

If you have a motor club policy, look at your motor club card or key ring for a phone number. There should be a toll-free 1-800 number listed on the card in addition to your policy number. The first thing you will need to do is give the customer service representative your motor club number so they can look up your policy. You may have to verify your personal information such as your phone number, address, vehicle, and birth date. After the motor club rep has verified your identity, you will be asked a few questions about your situation and location. While the first question should be simple to answer, the second may prove to be more difficult.

When you have a break down in an unfamiliar area, there are a couple of steps you can take in order to determine exactly where you are. Unfortunately, motor club providers usually want an address and will require more information than just the name of the road you’re on and a mile marker. Of course, if you happen to have GPS in your vehicle, try using that to determine your exact location. However, if you don’t have a GPS, it may still be possible to use an app on your phone to pinpoint where you are. When neither option is feasible, try your best to remember the name of the last road or exit you passed. This information will help your motor club rep find where you are so they can notify a tow truck.

Generally, when you file a motor club claim through your roadside servicer directly, they will pay the towing charge up to a certain amount. It is possible to call a tow truck directly and then submit your towing invoice to the motor club company, but this isn’t always a good idea. Before you go this route, you need to check and make sure that the towing provider you’re going to use is covered under your motor club policy. Although it may seem like every tow service should be covered, this isn’t always necessarily the case. Additionally, some motor club providers will only pay for roadside service on the front end; they won’t reimburse you for paying out of pocket for your tow.

Calling a Tow Truck

For individuals who don’t have a motor club policy or roadside assistance coverage on their car insurance, you will need to call a wrecker or towing service directly. If your vehicle breaks down and you’re far away from home, this might be a little more difficult. How do you find a tow truck to call if you don’t have the phone number for one?

First, try calling 4-1-1 to see if you can get in touch with someone at information, or at least make use of an automated information service. If this doesn’t work, try calling the 1-800 number on your insurance card. It’s a bit of a long shot, but they may be willing to look up the number for a local tow truck if you explain your situation. When both of these options fail you, as a last resort, you can call 911. If you are given an option to speak with the police instead of the emergency dispatcher, choose this selection. Explain your situation and ask for instructions on what to do next.

Once you’ve made contact with the towing company, notified them of your situation, and given your location, you need to discuss payment. Especially if you are in an unfamiliar area, this is extremely important to find out since their pricing may be radically different from what you would expect in your hometown. After being given a price, you’ll need to find out what methods of payment the towing provider will accept. Both of these pieces of information could influence your decision on the location to which the tow truck will take your car.

For instance, if the towing service only accepts cash and will charge $300 to tow you home, you may have to re-think your course of action. Sometimes, the best option is to have your car towed to the closest auto repair shop. Then, find a place to spend the night until they open. It isn’t ideal, but the total cost of a tow, a vehicle repair, and a hotel stay is sometimes cheaper than just getting towed home if you’re hundreds of miles away.

After discussing price, payment method, and towing destination, ask your tow provider if there are any other steps you need to take. You may be advised to gather your things together before the truck arrives. Finally, try to be patient while waiting. It could take more than an hour before the nearest tow truck can get to you. Just remember that all the other people who are being helped before you are in basically the same situation and are as equally frustrated.

Safety Precautions

Every situation is different, but there are a few general safety precautions you should practice regardless of your particular circumstances.

  • Get completely out of the roadway whenever possible.
  • Stay in your car especially if you have a break down after dark.
  • If you absolutely have to get out of your car, try to go out through the passenger side to avoid getting out in the roadway.
  • Never perform work on your car from the driver’s side. It could cost you your life!
  • Leave your hazard lights on until the tow truck comes. Just because help is on the way doesn’t mean it’s okay to turn them off.
  • If your battery is dead, you may want to hang something white or light-colored out the window to let other motorists know that your car isn’t running.

Being stuck on the side of the road is a scary place to be. Fortunately, if you know what to do in this situation, you can greatly reduce your anxiety when it does happen. Always take precautions and err on the side of being as safe as possible. Be patient and follow whatever directions you are given by the motor club representative or towing service. Before you know it, the whole ordeal will be behind you.

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