Car breakdowns: what to do and how to stay safe

There's never a good time to break down - here's how to mitigate that

A warning triangle on the road

by Cat Dow |
Updated on

These days, if your car breaks down, it’s not just annoying, it can be dangerous. Road traffic accidents account for 13% of all deaths in the UK and 60% of those occur on country roads. While the debate over whether motorway hard shoulders should become live lanes rattles on, 38 people died between 2014-2019 died in the pilot of smart motorways.

Winter is now upon us and with it comes the inclement weather which makes breaking down a whole lot worse. Roadside assistance and recovery services tend to advise drivers that have broken down to put their hazards on and find a safe place until help arrives.

If the car is driveable, you’ll be asked to move it out of the way of passing traffic—so much as is safe to do. If it isn’t, more often than not, you’ll be advised to get out of the car—a tall order in chilly temperatures and rain, especially with kids.

Related: Best emergency kits

With the emphasis on safety, how do you make sure you can be seen by other motorists? Are your hazards enough? And how do you avoid becoming one of the statistics above?

Being prepared will definitely make any breakdown a lot less stressful. It’ll help you manage kids, pets and other passengers, as well as keep your own mental health under control as you wait for roadside assistance and recovery services to rock up and rescue you.

Here’s a handy list of stuff to consider putting in the car, in case of emergency or breakdown.

Light the way, we say! A torch never comes in wrong, provided it has batteries, of course. If you can, store the batteries out of the device, but never itu2014for example in a bag attached to the handle, so they donu2019t drain while itu2019s sitting waiting for the apocalypse to happen. Though you might be tempted to rely on the torch on your mobile device, itu2019s still worth storing a torchu2014itu2019s inexpensive and if your mobile lets you down at the last minute, youu2019re not going to be stranded in the dark (and possibly wet) with no light.

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Given driver predisposition to rely on mobiles for all kinds of tools and guidancesu2014watch, torch and atlas, spring to mindu2014some emergency roadside companies offer a quicker service if you use their app. Being able to track the progress of your driver can offer some reassurance too, especially if you have little ones asking u2018How many more minutes?u201d every thirty seconds.

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Appropriate footwear and something warm to put around yourself, your kids, or older or injured passengers will feel like an expert Bear Grylls-style decision when or if it comes to the crunch. Inevitably, breakdowns happen at the most inconvenient times: on the way to work when youu2019ve deliberately set off early for a special meeting, late at night when youu2019re tired and past your best. Being warm and well-footed will help you hang out on that roadside verge a little bit more comfortably.

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Itu2019s the UK. If the perpetual climate change chatter isnu2019t enough, you should definitely know that these isles, if not emerald, are most definitely wet. Wet is cold and cold is miserable. Umbrellas also double up as modesty screens for any ladies who are busting for the loo and are willing to grapple at straws for some privacy from passing cars. One where you can see through the clear dome, or be seen by drivers will help with safety.

Once youu2019re warm and are reassured that someone is on their way and can contact you if necessary, letu2019s make sure they can find us and other drivers can see you. You will have been advised to stick your hazard lights on when you first called roadside assistance. Fortunately, there are other devices you can buy to make sure other drivers are alerted to your presence. Whichever device you opt for, make sure you assess the safety risks and take all precautions to protect yourself before activating them.

These are handy little packs, that often contain some, or all, of the visibility devices from above, eg. high-vis vests. But it doesnu2019t hurt to have more than one of something in the car. Theyu2019re compact and pretty cheap. Thereu2019s additional equipment, such as a glass hammer, just in case the emergency is more collision than simple breakdown, and a first aid kit to deal with any minor injuries.

This advice can divide families and break friendships, but itu2019s never a bad idea to keep sucky, or chewy, sweeties in the car. From hard-boiled humbugs and sharp sherbet lemons, to soft-minted toffees and sugar-coated fruit jellies, everyone has a favourite teaspoon of sugar they love on a long journey or in the middle of a crisis. The sugar can help tired minds refocus and momentarily, keep the kids entertained.

Depending on their age, children can make dealing with a breakdown significantly more stressful. Whether itu2019s nappy-changing time roadside, restlessness in a hazardous place, fright from the noisy traffic or general boredom, what can initially start as an adventure can soon descend into drama with fraught nervous and frayed tempers. Try and keep your cool by turning every step of the rescue waiting time into a u201cspecial missionu201d u2014 a climbing rope might help tether tearaways. Failing that a trusty travel-size board game can help pass the time. Of course, this wonu2019t work in all settings, but whatever happens, rest assured, youu2019re doing a great job!

Dogs, like kids, need a bit of entertaining after the novelty of being broken down wears off. If your hound hates traffic, or the general experience of being in the car, the whole situation can become more stressfulu2014helped only by something familiar like a toy, or stress-reducing chew bone. Of course, make sure you mention your poochu2019s presence to roadside recovery so they bring a suitable vehicle, in case of roadside repair isnu2019t possible.


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