Breaking Down Without Breaking Down: Highway Edition

by | Jul 20, 2015

Breaking down on a highway or interstate can be an extremely confusing and dangerous experience, especially for novice drivers or those traveling solo. Knowing how to react in a vehicle failure situation is imperative to keeping you and your family safe, as well as those other drivers on the road. Since there are any number of conditions and factors that can influence what’s best practice in the event of a breakdown, this article focuses on the best and worst case scenarios, along with what the appropriate actions are for each. Remember these tips the next time your vehicle breaks down on a highway or interstate and you’ll be ready to safely maneuver through these high-stress situations.

1. Be Prepared

The best thing you can do to be prepared in the event of a vehicle failure situation is to plan ahead. Every vehicle should have a roadside disaster kit in case there’s an incident that causes you to break down or an emergency that forces you to evacuate your home. This kit should contain safety equipment like a flashlight with extra batteries, a first-aid kit, warning devices and jumper cables so that you always have access to the basic necessities. For a comprehensive list of items that should be included in your kit, check out

Keeping your vehicle properly maintained at all times can also lower your risk for a breakdown situation. Make sure that your oil and water is looked at regularly and that your tire tread doesn’t go below the 1.6mm legal minimum. Learning how to perform basic auto maintenance in your spare time can also save you time and money.

2. Keep Calm

Remaining calm during a breakdown situation while on a busy highway can be difficult, but it may mean the difference between making a good or bad decision. If you feel a failure in your vehicle’s performance, avoid making rash decisions like slamming on your breaks, this could cause a motorist behind you to rear-end your vehicle. Instead, do not apply your brakes until you have merged to the far right lane, then gently apply your breaks as you pull into the emergency lane.

3. Turn On Your Hazard Lights

Vehicles are outfitted with hazard lights for the purpose of notifying other motorists when something is wrong. Become familiar with where your hazard light button is located—identifiable by a red triangle symbol—before you find yourself in a breakdown situation. As soon as you feel that something is wrong with your vehicle, turn on your hazard lights and keep them on until you’re ready to merge back into traffic.

4. Try To Figure Out What’s Wrong

While you’re evaluating your vehicle’s position with regards to surrounding traffic in preparation of pulling over, try to make a cursory assessment regarding what might be wrong. Did you blowout a tire or run out of gas? Is there smoke coming out from beneath the hood? Are you having trouble steering? Being able to make a rough estimate of what might be wrong with your vehicle will help you after you’ve pulled over and need to determine whether or not you should risk getting out to fix the problem, or if you can remain within the safety of the vehicle and call for roadside assistance.

5. Pull Over

Best Case:

In the best possible situation you should be able to gradually navigate your car onto the right-hand shoulder of the road, using your hazard lights and turning signals to alert other drivers to your intentions. Pull as far off of the road as possible, making sure to note and avoid any unleveled ground. If possible, coast along the shoulder until you’re clear of any curves in the road. This will make your vehicle as visible as possible to other motorists and make it easier when you need to rejoin traffic. Turn your wheel so that the tires are facing away from the highway and engage your emergency brake.

Worst Case:

If your vehicle breaks down in a live lane in the middle of the night, it’s imperative that you react quickly and with excessive caution. If at all possible, use your vehicles momentum to get as far to the right as you can. Turn on all of your interior lights immediately to make your vehicle as visible as possible and call 911 so that they can send out a patrolman to direct oncoming traffic around you.

In most cases, you’ll want to remain in your vehicle until help can arrive. This can be unnerving as cars fly by you at increasing speeds, but you’re more likely to survive being hit by a car while in yours than if you attempt to leave the car. However, if the car is smoking and/or there is a significant lapse in traffic, take extreme caution and exit the vehicle, moving as quickly as possible off the road and beyond any roadside barriers to wait for help.

6. Determine Your Location

Best Case:

Hopefully when your vehicle breaks down you’re in a familiar and safe area that’s relatively close to wherever you call home. Note the nearest exit, mile marker or information sign so that you can tell anyone you call for help your exact location, making response time that much faster.

Worst Case:

If you’re unfortunate enough to breakdown in an area you’re unfamiliar with and there are no signs nearby, there are still some methods you can use to figure out your approximate location. If your cellphone has service, use Google’s or another app’s location services. You can also give roadside assistance a rough estimate of your location by assuming that for every minute you’ve been on the road you’ve traveled one mile and let them know what exit you got on. If your phone battery dies or you simply don’t have service, wait patiently with your hazard lights on, when someone stops to offer assistance, open your window slightly and ask them to call the police to assist you.

7. Call For Help

911: If you’re stuck in the middle of a live lane or some other risky location, call 911 immediately so that they can send a unit to your location as soon as possible to block the highway behind your vehicle.

Roadside Assistance Or Tow Truck: Many companies offer roadside assistance plans that will help you in the event of an emergency. If you have one of these plans, check to see what it covers and keep their number handy. If you don’t have a roadside assistance plan, tow truck companies provide a number of the same amenities including gas delivery and lockout services. Tow truck drivers are also usually willing to give you a ride if you’re unable to get one and you need to be dropped off somewhere close by. Just give your service provider the name and address of where you want your car to be dropped off—usually a dealership or repair shop—and that of wherever you need to go.

Providing the dispatcher of your chosen roadside assistance or tow truck company with as much information as possible can help to speed up the process and avoid any problems. Inform them of the issues you’re having with your vehicle and any special circumstances regarding your vehicle that may require special towing (for instance, if you have a highline vehicle).

Friend Or Family: Call a family member or friend in the event that your vehicle will need to be towed, resulting in you needing a ride home.

Regardless of what type of help you call for you’ll need to provide your responder with your approximate location, vehicle type and color, license number and a phone number where you can be reached if further direction is required.

8. To Fix Or Not To Fix

This issue is one of the most debated by experts when it comes to safety. Due to the number of factors that can affect a breakdown situation—including the weather and location—there is no one right answer that can be applied to all scenarios. We recommend using your common sense, weighing all of your options carefully, and erring on the side of extreme caution when it comes to making the decision of whether to remain in your vehicle or exit and attempt repairs.

Best Case:

Ideally you’ve been able to pull your car over to the right-hand shoulder of the highway, giving yourself a significant amount of space between you and the closest live lane. If you think that your vehicle has a flat tire or is in need of some other minor repair, and you are familiar with the basics of car maintenance, you may exit the vehicle from the passenger side as long as you feel that you can safely do so. However, if you are not experienced in performing vehicle repairs, being stranded and exposed to the dangers of speeding traffic is not the time to learn. Only attempt to change a tire if the blowout happened on the side of the vehicle opposite of the traffic.

Worst Case:

If your vehicle has broken down in the middle of a live lane it is imperative that you understand the severity of the situation you’re in. Do not attempt to fix a vehicle that is in the middle of a live lane. If you feel that there is a significant chance that you will get hit and there happens to be a gap in traffic, enough so that you can safely exit the vehicle and get behind a safety barrier, we recommend doing so. If you see smoke or flames coming out from beneath the hood, exit the vehicle as soon as you can safely do so.

9. Alert Others

It’s important that you make your car as visible as possible to alert other motorists to your breakdown. This way they have time to take the appropriate actions to give you the space you need.

Best Case:

There’s enough space between your vehicle and the live lane for you to exit safely from the passenger side door. Because you’re prepared, your emergency roadside kit is packed and ready to go. Only attempt to place warning devices if you are comfortable with doing so.

Reflective Vest: It’s not only important to make sure that your vehicle is as visible as possible, but that you are as well. If you plan on stepping outside of the vehicle at any point in time, make sure you’re wearing a reflective vest or the brightest piece of clothing available.

Flares, Triangles, Cones: Place these reflective devices roughly 100, 200 and 300 feet behind your vehicle, beginning with the closest device to the vehicle behind the tire adjacent to the highway and ending with the farthest device behind the opposite tire.

Flag: If you have a white flag, napkin or handkerchief, tie it around your antenna or trap it in between your window and the frame of the door.

Pop The Hood: The universal sign of a vehicle breakdown, pop the hood of your car to alert approaching drivers.

Worst Case:

If your car broke down in a live line or somewhere else precarious, don’t attempt to place any warning devices, just turn on all of your interior lights (your hazards should still be on at this point) and remain in the vehicle with your seat belt on. Again, if there is an opportunity for you to get to safety, take it.

10. Waiting For Help

Best Case:

If you’re in a safe environment during the middle of the day, exit through a door opposite of the traffic and stand beyond the safety barrier as far away from the vehicle as possible. Never stand in between the car and traffic or directly in front or behind.

Worst Case:

If your vehicle breaks down in the middle of the night or in an area you’re unfamiliar with remain in your vehicle until help arrives. Keep the doors locked at all times and only lower your window slightly to talk with anyone who approaches the vehicle. If at any point someone starts to bother you or you feel threatened, honk your horn over and over and flash your lights to draw attention.

11. When Help Arrives

Once roadside assistance arrives on the scene, exit and position yourself away from the vehicle, preferably on the outside of any roadside barriers. Do not attempt to help the roadside service provider unless you are specifically requested to do so, and then only if you can help without compromising your safety.

12. Leaving

Best Case:

Hopefully your car just needs minor repairs that can either be performed by either you or roadside assistance. If a service is performed by a hired professional, make sure that you get a receipt detailing those services. When you’re ready to rejoin traffic, start by picking up speed on the shoulder of the road and when you have a gap in traffic merge back onto the highway. Don’t forget to retrieve any warning devices and turn off your hazard lights!

Worst Case:

If your vehicle is in need of serious work and cannot be made operational, a tow truck will have to transport your car. Verify the name and location of the repair shop or dealership the vehicle is being towed to and take down the tow truck company’s information.

Breakdowns happen to everyone eventually. By remaining calm and remembering to use your common sense, you can get through it safely and efficiently. If you find yourself in a breakdown situation, call Duvall’s Towing Service’s Inc. at (561)432-8488. In addition to towing services, we also offer lockout, gas delivery, and jump start services!

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