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Car Breakdowns: Survival Guide

Published on 19th April 2016 in Breakdowns

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UK roadside recovery crews are being called out an estimated 20,000 times every day, meaning a car breakdown is likely to happen to you - however reliable your vehicle might seem. 

According to research by Which?, at least one journey each year will result in a breakdown for around one in six motorists. Obviously, reasons vary, but the outcome is always the same; stressful for those with roadside breakdown cover, and wallet-draining for those without. 

With every car breakdown scenario requiring a different solution, we’ve set out to simplify things with a step-by-step survival guide. Breaking down is always a nightmare, but the strain of the situation can be eased somewhat if you know the best course of action. 

Crucial checks before setting off 

  • Ensure your car is safe and roadworthy. Prior to travelling, carry out a few basic and low-tech driveway checks on tyres, oil and fluid levels, filters, mirrors, lights and electrics. If anything looks or sounds suspect, contact your local IMI-registered technician. 
  • Secure the most comprehensive roadside breakdown cover you can afford - and remember to check that your existing policy has automatically renewed. Store the provider’s emergency number in your mobile phone, and keep a copy in your glove box.
  • Pack an emergency kit for your car, should you run into trouble on the road. Breakdown basics include a torch, jump leads, mobile phone charger, road map, red warning triangle, first aid kit, hi-visibility jacket, and pair of appropriate walking shoes. It’s also handy to have warm clothes, non-perishable food, and some spare cash. 
  • Fill up fuel to full capacity to avoid both breaking down and potentially causing damage to your engine. According to roadside stats, around 827,000 UK drivers broke down in 2015 due to running out of petrol, with 536,000 ignoring their vehicle's fuel warning light. 

Car broken down on any road other than a motorway 

  • As soon as you suspect there’s a problem, pull over as far to the left-hand side of the road as soon as you can. Apply the handbrake and spin your steering wheel away from the road to avoid rolling out into oncoming traffic.
  • Turn on your hazard warning lights to alert other motorists. If it’s dark or there’s poor visibility, switch on your side lights to caution oncoming cars in both directions. 
  • Once you’re well away from traffic, set up your red warning triangle 45 metres behind your car. It’s also a really good idea to pop open the car bonnet as a signal to other drivers that you're having mechanical troubles and haven’t stopped for no reason. 
  • Get back into your car and put your seatbelt on. Lock the doors, especially if it’s dark or you’re alone on a less-travelled road. 
  • Assuming you have a charged mobile phone, call for help. If you’ve broken down near to home, family and friends are your best bet for basic fixes such as jump starts or refilling fuel. With any luck, they can tow you to the nearest garage for your car to get the once-over by an IMI-registered technician. 
  • In all other scenarios, call your car breakdown provider - even the most basic policy covers repairs at the roadside. Never take a blind stab at DIY auto fixes by the roadside, even a simple tyre change.  
  • Stay in your car and wait for help. Not only will most roadside recovery crews fail to carry out any repairs without a driver present, but roadways - especially busy ones - can be dangerous places for people on foot. 
  • Exercise caution and be wary of strangers offering their support. If someone approaches your car, wind down the window a tiny bit and explain politely that help is on its way. 

Car broken down on the motorway 

  • At the first sign of trouble, check for cars in the inside lanes before moving across and pulling onto the hard shoulder. Try to pay attention to your location by taking note of the motorway’s marker or junction number. 
  • Apply the handbrake and spin your wheel so that your front wheels are facing towards the left, away from the traffic. Try to park up as close to the grass verge as is practical. 
  • Turn on your hazard lights to alert other motorists that you are stationary. Switch your side lights on if it’s dark, and also your rear fog light too if visibility is particularly poor. 
  • Get everyone out of the car, leaving by the passenger’s side or left-hand rear door - never via the driver’s side. Don’t keep the engine running or the lights on since this can drain the battery - if it hasn’t died already. Just lock the door and walk away. Also, regardless of their age, never leave children in the car. 
  • Once outside the car, make sure that everyone stands behind the crash barrier and as close to the verge as possible. If you’ve packed hi-visibility jackets, wear them. 
  • Call for car breakdown assistance from one of the free-to-use brightly-painted orange emergency roadside telephones - they connect directly to the Highways Agency or the police. There’s one every 100 metres and make it easy for motorway recovery crews to pinpoint your precise location. 
  • Keep calm when speaking to the Highways Agency operator. Although motorway breakdowns are given top priority, response times may be quicker for motorists travelling with a heavily pregnant passenger, young baby, or someone needing medical attention. 
  • The biggest fear of breaking down on the motorway is being hit, so never attempt to set up your red warning triangle - it’s simply not worth the risk.   
  • Leave the mechanicals to the mechanics. Don’t try to diagnose any faults, or worse still, attempt to fix them yourself by the roadside.  Your main concern should be staying safe and keeping everyone else safe while help is on its way. You can deal with the car later. 
  • Wait patiently to be rescued and remember that you’re not the first to experience a car breakdown. And with no sign of an invincible car hitting the market any time soon, you won’t be the last. 

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