What you should do if your car breaks down

When your car breaks down it can be a worrying experience – particularly if you are in a busy flow of traffic – but there are steps to take which will help keep you safe.

Of course, prevention is better than a cure which is why it’s important to have your car regularly serviced as well as carrying out some simple checks to assess its condition yourself.

Keeping a few useful items in your boot can also be helpful in the event of a breakdown. A warning triangle, decent torch, blanket and a shovel could all be useful, particularly in the winter months. And always make sure your phone is fully charged before heading off on long journeys.

Warning signs

Often the first sign that something is wrong might be a warning light appearing on your dashboard. You shouldn’t ignore these warning lights – stop at a safe place to carry out basic checks and consult your vehicle’s handbook to identify the problem.

Listen for any unusual noises, or if you feel any strange vibrations then slow down and find a safe place to stop before seeking advice.

Above all, don’t panic if you do have to stop. You should try to move away from moving traffic, in a lay-by or on a hard shoulder if possible. If this isn’t possible then pull over as far to the left as you can and put on your hazard lights.

If you have one, and only if it’s safe to do so, then placing a red warning triangle at least 45 metres (147 feet) behind your broken-down vehicle on the same side of the road.

Leaving your car

You, and any passengers, should leave the vehicle from the passenger side away from the traffic. Leave your passenger door unlocked so you can quickly re-enter the vehicle should you feel unsafe or threatened for any reason.

You should find a safe spot to stand, ideally behind a barrier and away from traffic, before calling your breakdown service.

Usually it is safest to leave any pets in the car, with the windows open wide enough to offer ventilation but not an escape route.

What if you breakdown on a motorway?

If your car develops a problem while you are on the motorway you should leave at the next exit or pull into a service station. If this isn’t possible, then pull onto the hard shoulder and park with your wheels turned to the left.

If you breakdown on the outside lane of a motorway or on a high speed dual carriageway you will need to assess if it is safe to leave the vehicle.

If it isn’t safe for you and your passengers to leave the vehicle, and if there’s a significant chance your vehicle could be struck, then call the police with your location. You should also keep your seatbelt on.

If you are able to leave the road and exit the car, then follow the arrows on the posts next to the hard shoulder and walk to the nearest emergency telephone, which are situated at one-mile intervals. These phones are free to use and connect directly to the region's highways authority or police. Always face oncoming traffic when using the phone.

After doing this you can then use your own phone to contact your breakdown service.

What if you breakdown in a rural location?

Getting stuck in the middle of nowhere presents its own challenges. While roads may be quieter they can also present problems for visibility – sharp corners, tall hedges, overgrown trees and a lack of lighting can all combine to create hazards for you and other motorists.

If your car develops a fault then look for a safe place to stop which is off the road itself. If there are no suitable side roads or lay-bys then you should aim to minimise the obstruction which you are creating. Pull over to the side of the road as far as you can then switch off your engine and switch on your hazard lights and side lights.

You and your passengers should leave the car and once you have found a safe refuge you can consider whether it is safe to place a warning triangle behind your broken down vehicle. Wearing a reflective jacket will also improve your visibility.

Once you are safe, use your phone to call your breakdown service. If you don’t have a signal you will need to walk to find the nearest public telephone or until you find a spot where your phone regains a signal.

If you don’t know an area then it is useful to take note of any signs which will help your breakdown service to locate you.

Did you know?

Car owners who take out NFU Mutual’s motor insurance policy will also receive roadside assistance from the RAC should they breakdown more than a quarter of a mile from their home.

Find out more about our motor insurance.