What to Do if Your Car Breaks Down

What to do when your car breaks down and how to handle it safely.
By Zach Bowman, DriverSide Contributor
The side of the road is a dangerous place. No matter how well you maintain your car, the possibility exists that you'll find yourself broken down on the side of the road. With tons of metal, plastic and people hurling past you at fast speeds, it is important to keep your wits about you when the worst happens.

AAA, the king of auto clubs in America, lays out some pretty simple steps to keep you and your family safe in the event of mechanical failure. Before you ever come to a stop, it's important to keep the car under control. This means not panicking, not over reacting and carefully thinking out your actions after whatever it is takes your vehicle out of commission. Whether it's a brake failure, an engine stall or a flat tire, keeping your cool is going to be easier said than done.

AAA recommends turning on your hazards as soon as you pull over to the side of the road. On that note, it's important to know exactly where the trigger for those flashers is located on your vehicle. The next time you're a little early for work, practice calmly reaching up and actuating your warning signals. Besides familiarizing you with their location, it will also make your neighbors wonder about your sanity. Everyone loves that.

Your hazard lights are important because they warn other drivers around you that something's not right. If they're paying attention, those drivers will give you more space and let you get to safety.

You may be wondering where that is on the side of a highway, but according to the Virginia State Police, some areas are safer than others.

"It's traditionally safer to be on the right shoulder than on the left," said Sgt. Tom Cunningham, a spokesperson with the Virginia State Police. "The key is to get out of the active lane of travel and to the shoulder as quickly and safely as possible."

In the event of a flat tire, it may feel like you're doing substantial damage to your vehicle the longer you drive it. Your first instinct will probably be to stop the car as quickly as possible, even if that means being on the median side of things. Generally, the worst you can do is foul a wheel or rim. While this may cost you anywhere from $30 to $300 depending on your vehicle, it's better to risk the damage than risk your life on the wrong shoulder.

Once you've negotiated your wounded ride as far to the side of the road as you can, it's time to assess the situation. Unless there's smoke, fire or your vehicle is still protruding into traffic, keep everyone you can inside of the car. If you know you can't fix the situation or get the car to limp to a service station, go ahead and call for help.

Cunningham recommends having a cell phone with a fully charged battery in the car for emergencies. Most states have roadside assistance or motorist assist vehicles just for roadside emergencies. Those that don't are usually more than willing to dispatch an officer to keep you safe until a tow truck arrives.

About 600 people die annually as pedestrians on America's interstate system, according to AAA's statistics. If it is at all possible, avoid leaving your vehicle to walk for help. Some states, like Virginia, have laws prohibiting walking alongside the interstate. Doing so can net you a citation on top of any vehicle repairs you may have to deal with.

Breaking down on a roadway other than the interstate provides its own challenges, like smaller shoulders and decreased visibility. If you absolutely have to walk for help, stay on the left hand shoulder facing traffic. This won't allow drivers to see you any easier, but it will let you react if they get too close for comfort.

If possible, coax your car somewhere other than the side of the road, even if that means driving at 10 mph. A parking lot or service station will always be a safer alternative to the shoulder. While you may risk greater damage to your vehicle, replacing the whole car is probably going to be cheaper than a funeral.

Of course, the best way to protect yourself on the side of the road is not to wind up there in the first place.

"Prevention goes a long way," Cunningham said. "Have your car regularly inspected and make sure it has enough fuel before taking a trip."

Doing so can keep you out of harm's way.

Steps For Surviving A Breakdown
1.   Don't panic
2.   Actuate your hazard lights
3.   Carefully and safely move your vehicle to the right side of the road
4.   Pull as far to the shoulder as you can, making sure you're not in traffic
5.   Don't get out of the vehicle if you can help it
6.   Assess the situation
7.   If you can slowly drive your vehicle to safety, do so
8.   If you can't, call 911 or the state police
9.   Only perform repairs (such as changing a flat) if you know you're capable and it's safe to do so
10. Always be aware of traffic

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