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What to Do If Your Car Breaks Down

It’s easy for panic to set in when our vehicles break down, especially in an unfamiliar location, in adverse weather conditions or if you've broken down on a motorway.

If you’re wondering what to do in case of a car breakdown, read on to find out how you can be prepared in advance and what to look out for.

It’s always better to be prepared, and knowing what to do in the event of a breakdown can ensure that you can resume your journey as quickly as possible, or at the very least get to somewhere safe, warm and dry.

Here we’ll look at what to do in the event of a breakdown and how to ensure that you stay safe, no matter where or when you break down.

Knowing the signs

Often, your vehicle will give you some warning signs that a breakdown is imminent. Rarely has a broken down car simply rolled to a gentle stop.

Listen out for unusual noises like bumping, grinding or squeaking as well as any fluctuations in performance such as a sudden loss of momentum or difficulty steering. You may also see some warning signs appear on your dashboard.

The faster you spot the signs, the easier it is to pull your car over somewhere safe. The last thing you want is to be stuck with a broken down car in a live lane, so as soon as you notice anything untoward, take action.

Once you have pulled to a stop, apply your handbrake, turn off your engine and activate your hazard warning lights immediately. If it's dark or visibility is poor, leave your sidelights on as well.

My car broke down, who do I call?

If you are in immediate danger, for example in a live lane of a motorway or dual carriageway, call 999 for emergency assistance.

As soon as possible you should contact your breakdown recovery service provider, who will send a technician to you as quickly as they can. They will be able to perform a roadside repair, or at the very least tow your vehicle to a place of safety.

If you do not already have breakdown cover, remedy this before you find yourself in this situation. Whilst you don’t need breakdown cover to get someone to administer roadside assistance, you’ll find it far more expensive if you need help but don’t have breakdown cover in place.

While you wait for emergency assistance from your breakdown cover roadside technician, it’s simply a matter of staying safe until they arrive.

Leave your vehicle from the left-hand side and encourage any other passengers to do the same, as long as it is safe to do so.
Make sure that you and your passengers keep as warm and dry as possible.

Lock your vehicle and keep your car doors locked until your technician arrives, ensuring that pets are kept safe inside with adequate ventilation.

Stay as far away from the road as you can while making yourself as visible as possible.

If you can, alert other drivers to your presence with high visibility clothing and, unless you are on a dual carriageway or motorway, place a hazard warning triangle to alert other drivers that there is a hazard ahead. If you've broken down on a two way road, this will let other drivers know that they may need to move over whilst checking for oncoming traffic.

How far away should you place a warning triangle?

Place your hazard warning triangle at least 45 metres (approximately 10 car lengths) away from your vehicle on the same side of the road to alert oncoming traffic.

Remember, if there is nowhere for you to wait in safety, even if you have breakdown cover in place, call the emergency services without delay.

Breaking down in a car park

You may consider yourself relatively lucky if your car has broken down in car park and not in a live lane on the motorway.

Nonetheless, it still pays to know what to do. After all, you could find yourself in a car park after dark, or in an unfamiliar location. If you feel at risk from other people, remain in your car and lock the doors.

It still pays to have breakdown cover in place so that you can call for emergency assistance in the event of a breakdown. Whether your engine refuses to start or your vehicle has a flat tyre, a breakdown cover provider can attempt to fix this in the car park, or take you to a garage where the problem can be resolved.

Breaking down on a motorcycle

If you break down on a motorcycle the procedure is much the same as when driving a car, although motorcyclists can feel much more vulnerable and exposed.

Pull your bike over safely to the side of the road and activate your hazard warning lights. Switch off your headlamp as this can place a significant drain on your battery. If your bike doesn’t have hazard warning lights, use your indicators or parking lights.

As tempting as it may be to attempt to fix your bike on the roadside, this is not recommended. The more you’re focused on your bike, the more vulnerable you are to passing traffic.

Call your breakdown provider for emergency assistance and wait by your vehicle for them to arrive.

Wearing a high visibility vest is recommended for your safety. Stay as far away from the road as you can while making yourself as visible as possible.

Motorway breakdown advice

If your vehicle breaks down on a motorway, it can be particularly nerve-wracking, especially if you’re in a live lane surrounded by fast moving vehicles.

It is also worth reading up on what to do if you break down on a smart motorway, as these are different to other motorways. Smart motorways use technology to keep the traffic flowing and may include sections where there is no hard shoulder.

If you break down on a motorway, try to leave at the nearest exit or pull into a service area. If this is not possible indicate left and pull onto the hard shoulder.

On smart motorways without a hard shoulder, put your left indicator on and move left into the nearest Emergency Refuge Area (ERA). These are spaced regularly on motorways without hard shoulders and marked with blue signs featuring an orange SOS telephone symbol.

Switch on your hazard warning lights and side lights if its dark or if visibility is poor.

Exit the vehicle from the left-hand side of the vehicle, encouraging passengers to do likewise, as long as it is safe to do so.

Keep well away from your vehicle and moving traffic, even if it’s raining, cold or dark. Stand behind the barrier as far away from the flowing traffic as possible and wear high visibility clothing so that other road users can see you.

Even if you have mobile phone coverage, if your vehicle breaks down on a motorway it is preferable to make your way to the nearest emergency telephone as that is exactly what they are there for. These are located in emergency areas for motorways without hard shoulders or, for motorways with hard shoulders, at intervals along the motorway (follow the arrows on the posts at the back of the hard shoulder). The telephone is free of charge and connects you directly to highway recovery assistance. They will be able to identify your location from the telephone you are using.

Do not attempt to leave your vehicle in a live lane of a motorway. Instead put your hazard lights on, leave your seatbelt on and call 999 immediately. Finally, do not attempt to put down a hazard warning triangle on a motorway.


In summary


1. Stay safe!

  • Get your vehicle off the road if possible
  • Ensure your passengers are safe and that animals are kept under control
  • Wear a high-visibility jacket or vest to help other road users see you
  • Don’t stand (or let anybody else stand) between your vehicle and oncoming traffic
  • Wait away from your car if possible

2. Warn other road users

  • Use your hazard warning lights
  • Place a warning triangle on the road at least 45 metres behind your vehicle (but NOT on a motorway)
  • Do not stand where you will prevent other road users from seeing your lights at night or in poor visibility

3. Call for help

  • If you or others are in danger, call 999
  • Contact your breakdown recovery operator
  • On a motorway, use the nearest emergency telephone


Next steps

Hopefully you now feel more confident about what you would do if you broke down, but you can take further steps to prepare yourself even more...

Download our Breakdown and emergency guide

We all know that prevention is better than cure and this leaflet tells you how to keep your vehicle on the road in top condition, as well as what to do if you breakdown or find yourself in an emergency situation.


View our quick and handy video guides

These guides will talk you through some simple car maintenance and checks you can do yourself at home, to help prevent a breakdown.


Buy breakdown cover

And if this guide has got you thinking that you should consider getting breakdown cover, find out about simple and straightforward breakdown cover from GEM Motoring Assist. 

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