What to do if your car breaks down

No matter how reliable a vehicle is, breakdowns while driving are always a possibility. Even low-mileage cars that aren't likely to develop age-related mechanical problems can have defective parts, get flat tires, or run out of gas. Drivers should know what to do in the event of a breakdown to maximize safety and minimize damage. If you're experiencing a breakdown right now, or if you just want to know what to do when the moment strikes, read on for a step-by-step guide.
First steps

 

  • Stay calm. Slamming on the brakes or veering across lanes without signaling can be more dangerous than the breakdown itself.
  • Try to coast to the side of the road. If you're on a multi-lane highway, you may have to cross several lanes of traffic. Use your turn signal as you normally would to get to the side of the road, or as close as possible, without unnecessary risks.
  • On the highway, take the next exit or get to the right shoulder, if possible. If you're driving on an interstate or multi-lane highway with medians and an exit or the right shoulder aren't options, you may also consider the left shoulder, again pulling as far away from traffic as possible.
  • Turn on your hazard lights once you've come to a stop.
Soft shoulder on the right-hand side of a highway

 

  • If you've gotten out of traffic, stay with your vehicle. Safety experts agree that under most circumstances, if you're able to pull away from traffic, it's safest to remain in your vehicle with your seatbelt on until help arrives.
  • If you can't get your vehicle away from traffic, or if you think your vehicle may get rear-ended, do not stay in your vehicle.
  • Only get out of the car if you're sure it's safe. If you choose to exit the vehicle, do so safely and get well away from oncoming traffic and your vehicle. If possible, exit through the side facing away from the road. Never wait for help directly behind or in front of your vehicle.
  • If you see flames or smoke, exit the vehicle as soon as possible. Bring any passengers with you. Call 911.
Person pressing button to engage hazard lights
Next steps

 

  • If the breakdown is at night, make yourself as visible as possible. If it's safe to exit the car, put out reflective highway markers (usually red triangles) or road flares.
  • Determine the problem. Was the gas gauge at or near empty? You might have run out of fuel. Steam coming from under the hood indicates the engine may have overheated. A sudden pop followed the sound of flapping rubber is probably a tire blowing out. 
  • Know how to open your hood safely. If you can safely get out of the car, opening the hood indicates you're experiencing a breakdown. Practice opening and closing it beforehand. Some hoods have prop rods; know where they slot in and check that they're properly fastened.
  • Check the hood for heat. If it's too hot to touch, don't open it—there may be flames or hot steam underneath.
Man safely securing hood open with prop rod

 

  • Call 911 if you're in danger. Dangerous situations include a car fire, being stranded in the middle of a fast-moving traffic, or being in an unsafe area. 
  • Request AAA Roadside Assistance online, in the Auto Club App, or by calling 1-800-400-4222.
  • Be ready to provide your info. That includes your name and AAA membership number; the exact location of your vehicle and nearby cross streets; the make, model, year, color, and license plate of the vehicle; and the nature of the problem. If you're concerned for your safety or for the safety of others, tell the AAA service representative.
  • Prepare for help to arrive. AAA's Service Tracker lets you see the assistance vehicle as it makes its way to you.1 Have your ID and AAA membership card ready.
Woman calling for roadside assistance on a cellphone
Tow truck icon
Had a breakdown, or want to be prepared for one? Rely on AAA's legendary Roadside Assistance
Our 24-hour Roadside Assistance is why many members join and renew. And when you need us, we’re there. If you lock your keys in your car, get a flat tire, need a jump start, or break down on the road, we can be there to help, day or night, even if it’s not your car.

1See Member Guide for more information, including terms and conditions.

 

Information taken from "What to Do When Your Vehicle Breaks Down," AAA Association Communication, © AAA 2010.

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