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What to do if your car breaks down

It happens to most drivers at some point – and it can be pretty stressful. But if you break down, the most important thing is to try to stay calm and keep everyone in the car safe. Follow our breakdown survival guide on what to do if your car packs up, whether you’re on a motorway or regular road or at home.

It happens to most drivers at some point – and it can be pretty stressful. But if you break down, the most important thing is to try to stay calm and keep everyone in the car safe. Follow our breakdown survival guide on what to do if your car packs up, whether you’re on a motorway or regular road or at home.

Written by
Julie Daniels
Motor insurance expert
17 MAY 2021
6 min read
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What should I do if my car breaks down on the motorway? 

More than 230,000 breakdowns occurred on England’s motorways in 2019, according to Highways England. Breaking down on a busy road can be dangerous, especially if cars are speeding past at 70mph, so it’s important to follow these steps to stay as safe as possible: 

  1. Get off the motorway as soon as you suspect something is wrong with your car, by taking the next exit or pulling into a service station.
  2. Pull on to the hard shoulder if you can’t exit the motorway, and stop as far to the left as possible. Turn your wheels to the left and switch on your hazard warning lights. If it’s dark or visibility is poor, turn on your fog lights too. Never try to place a warning triangle on a motorway.
  3. Try to stop in an emergency refuge area if you break down on a smart motorway where there’s no hard shoulder. These are shown by a blue sign with an orange SOS symbol. Smart motorways also use CCTV to check for breakdowns, and can close your lane once they become aware there’s a problem.
  4. Get out of your car on the left and ask your passengers to do the same, so you don’t step into the path of passing traffic. If possible, wait behind a barrier and not behind your broken-down car. Keep a close eye on any children and leave any pets in the car with a window slightly open. If you have a disability that prevents you from getting out of the car, keep your seatbelt on and dial 999.
  5. Don’t try to fix the problem yourself. Even if you think you know what’s wrong, don’t put yourself in danger by attempting even simple repairs.
  6. Call your breakdown service via your mobile or walk to an emergency phone on your side of the carriageway, keeping as far away from the traffic as you can. The phone is free and connects directly to an operator. Always face the traffic when you speak on the phone.

What should I do if my car breaks down on a regular road? 

While breaking down on quieter roads in towns and cities isn’t usually as dangerous as motorways, you still need to be on your guard. Follow these steps to stay safe:

  1. Pull over to a safe place. Try to get out of the way of other vehicles so you’re not causing an obstruction, but watch out for ditches and soft verges.
  2.  Turn on your hazard warning lights to warn other road users that you have a problem. If it’s dark or foggy, leave your sidelights on too.
  3. Maximise your visibility. You’ll be easiest to see if you have light-coloured or fluorescent clothing in daylight, and reflective clothing at night or in poor visibility. The more you can be seen, the safer for everyone. It’s a good idea to put a fluorescent vest in your boot, with the rest of your breakdown kit just in case.
  4. Put your red warning triangle on the road. Only do this if it’s safe. It should be at least 45 metres (about 60 steps) behind your broken-down vehicle, on the same side of the road. Walking near high-speed traffic is dangerous, so skip this step if there’s a lot of passing vehicles.
  5. Never stand between your vehicle and oncoming traffic or anywhere that will prevent other road users from seeing your car’s lights.
  6. Call your breakdown service to come and help you. If you’re not sure of your location, look out for road signs or notable landmarks. Some providers have an app you can use to pinpoint your location. This will also keep you updated on your mechanic’s progress while you wait.
  7. Call the police on 101 (the non-emergency number) if your car is blocking the road. They may need to divert traffic or make the area safe.
  8. Stay in your car until help arrives. As long as your vehicle is parked safely, it’s better to wait in the car. If you’re not familiar with the area you’re in, you might feel safer locking the doors.

What happens after I call my breakdown provider? 

Once you’ve reported your problem, your breakdown provider will arrange for a mechanic to come out to you. Most breakdown services will aim to get to you within the hour, but response times can be as quick as 30-45 minutes.

If the mechanic can fix your vehicle at the roadside, you’re free to go on your way. But if they can’t, what happens next will depend on your level of cover

• If you have roadside assistance, you’ll be recovered and taken to a nearby garage. 

• If you have national recovery, and your vehicle can’t be fixed that day, you can be recovered and taken to any location in the UK. Alternatively, onward journey cover could involve an overnight hotel stay or use of a courtesy car while your vehicle is being repaired so you can get to where you need to be. 

It also makes a difference whether you have cover for any car you’re travelling in or only cover for one car. So, be careful when choosing a breakdown policy to make sure you get the protection you need.

What happens if my car breaks down at home?

If you develop a problem before you even set off, like a flat battery, or you’re very close to home when you break down, you can call for assistance if you have home start cover. A mechanic can be sent out straight away, or you can book an appointment at a time to suit you.

If your car can’t be repaired on the spot, it can be recovered and taken to a garage to get it fixed.

What can I do if I don’t have breakdown cover? 

If your car breaks down and you don’t have breakdown cover in place, you have three options:

  • Get instant breakdown cover. You can phone a breakdown service to get help even if you’re not a member. This can be expensive though, as you may be charged a one-off fee for instant membership.
  • Call a local garage to see if someone can come out to pick up your vehicle. Be warned – this could end up being very pricey as there will be a callout fee and you’ll be charged for each mile you’re towed. Plus, this is only an option during garage opening hours.
  • Contact Highways England using the emergency phones if you break down on the motorway. A recovery vehicle will be sent to tow you to a local garage for a fee of at least £150. If your vehicle breaks down in roadworks, it can be removed to a safe place for free in certain circumstances. Similarly, if you’re driving in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, use the emergency phones to call for help. 

Find breakdown cover 

Luckily, most breakdown situations can be sorted out with roadside repair or recovery. And if you have breakdown cover in place, you’ll know in advance who is coming to help and what’s covered by your policy. Compare with us to get a great-value deal.

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