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What to Do When Your Car Breaks Down

car breakdown - driver is stranded on the side of the road

Even the most responsible owners run into car trouble now and then. It’s up to you to know what to do during a car breakdown, and how to keep yourself and others safe if it happens.

Here’s some car breakdown advice from AAA experts, including AAA’s Car Doctor John Paul.

Why do cars break down?

A car breakdown happens when little problems are ignored long enough to turn into big problems.

There are many reasons for a car breakdown, but some of the most common reasons are an overheated engine, a charging system failure or a tire blowout.

A car might not start because of a bad starter or loose battery connection, but we’re going to focus on what to do when your car breaks down while you’re driving.

When a car breakdown starts, you might feel the engine stumble or hear it misfire. The vehicle might jerk suddenly, or you could see steam billowing out of the front end.

As a general rule, red warning lights on the instrument cluster indicate serious issues. Think of them like red lights on a traffic signal. If a driver sees one come on, he or she needs to pull over immediately to prevent what could be catastrophic damage, AAA’s Car Doctor John Paul said.

Among the red lights – which you can see when your turn your car key to “ON” – these are considered the “Big Three” warning lights.

  • Engine Oil Pressure: Commonly called the teakettle, this light indicates the engine has lost its supply of oil and harmful metal-on-metal contact is about to occur, followed by major engine damage within seconds.
  • Coolant Temperature: Often signaled by a thermometer symbol riding waves (accompanied by a temperature gauge in the red), this light indicates a coolant leak or failure of a coolant system part such as the thermostat.
  • Charging System Failure: This one is the battery light with the plus and minus symbols inside. It illuminates when the alternator stops supplying power to the electrical system. It likely won’t damage anything else, but your car could lose power completely in less than 15 minutes.

Another red light to keep an eye on is the one that indicates an issue with the hydraulic brake system. In some cars it appears as “BRAKE,” but check your owner’s manual to make sure of what it looks like in your vehicle. This light could mean your car is low on brake fluid or that you left the parking brake engaged, or it could warn of a serious brake problem that craves the help of a certified automotive technician. Yellow or amber warning lights typically indicate less serious issues, but drivers should still exercise caution and address the problem as soon as possible.

car breakdown

When does a car breakdown typically happen?

It depends. AAA’s Car Doctor has seen a Chevrolet Malibu running well with 425,000 miles on it. Then again, he’s seen vehicles that get the daylights driven out of them, such as police cars, or ones that have skipped important maintenance services, wear out at 50,000 to 70,000 miles. It comes down to how well the vehicle is maintained, and whether or not important parts are replaced.

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What should you do when a car breakdown happens?

If a red light comes on, or you can feel your car failing, pull over as soon as it’s safe to do so. Seconds matter in these situations. (Especially if you see smoke, which can indicate a fire. If your car is on fire, get away from it and call 911 immediately.)

It doesn’t take long for a blown head gasket to cause a blown out water pump, radiator or heating core, says Peyton Knight, owner of the AAA Approved Auto Repair station Knight’s Automotive in Ledgewood, New Jersey.

“The most important thing you can do is watch the gauges and warning lights,” Knight said. “They usually come on early enough that you won’t do major damage is you pull over and shut off the car right away.

“Yes, the car might still go, and you might be tempted to try to make it home, but you’re going to do more damage than it’s worth,” he added.

In the event that a tire blows out, slow down by lifting your foot off the accelerator (do not slam on the brakes). Signal and pull over to the shoulder on the right side of the road, completely out of the flow of traffic and on level ground if you can. Try – keyword “try” – not to freak out, avoid sudden maneuvers (and don’t forget to look for other drivers if you must change lanes). When you get to safety, call AAA for help. Look for landmarks, street signs or anything else that can help AAA get to your location.

If your engine stops, or you run out of gas, you’re going to need to use your vehicle’s momentum to get out of the road. Again, coast on over to the right shoulder and do not hit the brakes until it’s necessary to stop.

If your vehicle’s engine has overheated – something today’s aluminum engines tend to do – pull over ASAP but do not open the radiator cap (it even warns you not to do this on the cap, so no excuses!). Twisting the cap open on a hot radiator is incredibly dangerous and will only net you a face full of hot steam.

While many of these scenarios require you to pull over as soon as possible, never jeopardize your safety to make it happen. If you find yourself in an inoperable car in the middle of traffic, stay in your car, turn your emergency flashers on and call AAA for help.

Can you tell me what to do when a car breakdown happens on the highway?

At highway speeds, fast decision-making is even more important.

If your car fails, or a tire blows out, decelerate by lifting your foot of the gas and signal your intent to pull over. If you can make it to a rest stop of off the nearest exit, do so. Otherwise, pull off to the left or right shoulder, park and call for help. Do not get out of your vehicle, and stay buckled. Other drivers may not see your vehicle, or you if you’re standing in front of it, especially at night or in inclement weather.

If you think your vehicle might get hit, or if you feel unsafe where it broke down, get to a safer location and tell the roadside assistance dispatcher your intentions. Make note of any nearby mile markers or exit signs. This will help your roadside assistance technician find you.

Some people use flares or orange warning triangles to mark their location after a car breakdown. Only do so if you can exit your vehicle on the side opposite the traffic and do not light flares if you smell gasoline leaking from your car. A good way to set up the triangles is to place them 100 feet, 200 feet and 300 feet from the car, Paul said.

How can you prevent a car breakdown?

Most car breakdowns can be prevented with the following steps:

  • Follow the manufacturer’s recommended car care schedule. Parts have a lifespan, and the manufacturer knows better than anyone what that lifespan is.
  • Bring the vehicle to a reputable repair shop. AAA Approved Auto Repair facilities conduct a safety inspection during every service, even something routine like an oil change. Thinking ahead helps catch potential problems before they result in a breakdown.
  • Conduct a monthly safety check. It’s your responsibility to catch fluid leaks, battery issues and tire problems in between trips to the shop. Once per month, pop the hood and make sure there’s no corrosion on the battery terminals; look for leaks (underneath the car, too) and check the tread depth and air pressure in all tires (including the spare).

How can AAA help with a car breakdown?

World-class AAA roadside assistance is available 24/7. Our technicians can help you fix a flat tire, give you a battery jump or tow you to a repair shop for a more serious repair. They know exactly what to do when your car breaks down. Members can request roadside assistance in several different ways, including by phone (1-800-222-4357), online or using the AAA Mobile App.

And if you car needs to be fixed, a AAA Approved Auto Repair Facility will provide service you can trust. Find a location near you.

Did we answer your questions about what to do when your car breaks down? Become part of the Your AAA community by leaving a note in the comments section below. 

This post was originally written in 2017 and has been updated.  


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2 Thoughts on “What to Do When Your Car Breaks Down

  1. Suppose you have your pet with you. I have a pet parrot, for instance. How do you handle that situation?

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