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What should you do if your car breaks down?

A broken down car is most drivers worst nightmare. And if your vehicle has broken down on a motorway it can be a scary and stressful experience.

Being prepared and knowing what to do can be crucial in keeping you and your passengers safe with a broken down car.

We explain how to react to mechanical failure on different types of roads and how to stay safe while you wait for help. 

 Red warning triangle placed on the road behind a broken down car 

What to do if you don’t have breakdown cover

If your car breaks down but you don’t have breakdown cover – either as part of your car insurance or as a standalone policy – don’t worry.

You can still call a breakdown company and ask for emergency assistance.

But you might have to pay the cost of any help you get – and this could run into hundreds of pounds.

As an alternative, you could call a local garage to see if they can help. This might be a cheaper option, but might not be available outside of normal working hours or at weekends.


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What to do if you break down on the motorway

Breaking down on a motorway can be especially worrying, and it’s vital to take every possible precaution to ensure your safety in such a situation.

First, we look at what you need to know if you break down on a conventional motorway with a hard shoulder. And further down the page we’ll highlight the additional challenges you could face on one of England’s new smart motorways.

  • If you’re still able to drive the car, exit the motorway if at all possible. This should make conditions much safer for you, and allow recovery vehicles to get to you much more easily.
  • Whether or not your car has come to a full stop, turn on your hazard lights so that other road users know you’re experiencing difficulties. This applies at all times of day, not just when it’s dark. In cases of low visibility or if you’re driving at night, turn on your front and rear sidelights as well.
  • If you can’t get off the motorway, pull over onto the hard shoulder and stop as far across to the left – away from traffic – as possible. Turn your wheels to the left as well.
  • Use the doors furthest away from traffic to exit your vehicle – so the driver should climb over into the passenger seat before getting out. Put on high-visibility clothing if you have it.
  • It’s usually safest to wait outside of your car on the other side of the barrier that runs alongside the hard shoulder. Ideally you should stand away from your car and at least a few metres behind the rear of your car. This should help keep you safe if another vehicle hits your car.
  • Use your phone to contact a breakdown service or a local garage for assistance.

If you have broken down on a motorway with no cover, you can still contact breakdown companies to come and rescue you, as explained above. It just might be more expensive.

If for any reason you can’t use your own phone to call for help, you can use an emergency phone on the motorway.

The direction of the nearest phone should be indicated by arrows on the posts supporting the hard shoulder barrier.


What to do if you break down on a smart motorway

Over the past few years, stretches of some motorways in England have been converted into smart motorways. This has involved changing the hard shoulder into a traffic lane, either during peak hours or all the time.

For motorists who break down, this could mean that they no longer have access to a hard shoulder refuge.

Instead, smart motorways have emergency refuge areas (ERAs) which are situated roughly every mile and a half.

  • Exit the motorway if at all possible, and if not try to reach the next ERA.
  • Turn on your hazard lights and sidelights if visibility is poor.
  • If you can’t get off the motorway or to an ERA, the next best option is to get as far across to the left-hand side of the motorway as possible.
  • If you can manage this, exit from the left of the vehicle. You night need to leave space between your car and the barrier in order to do so. Wait behind the barrier, well to the rear of the car, and call 999.
  • If your car is broken down in a live lane and you can’t safely exit, stay inside with your seatbelt on and call 999.

If you reach an ERA, use the SOS phone located there to contact Highways England and report the problem. The agency should then arrange for you to be rescued.

As part of the additional safety measures on smart motorways, CCTV is used to check for breakdown.

If you’re spotted, the lane you are in should be closed to other traffic and rescue vehicles should be sent out automatically.


What not to do if you break down on the motorway

There are certain things you should avoid doing if you break down on a conventional or smart motorway:

  • Don’t take pets out of the car with you. They are likely to be much safer inside the vehicle. On hot days, roll down a window a fraction to provide them with cooler air.
  • Don’t put down a warning triangle. The speed of the other vehicles means it is too dangerous to do so – and it’s unlikely to be effective as a warning.
  • Don’t attempt even basic repairs. Stay well away from your car, as there’s a significant risk of it being hit by another vehicle.

What to do if you break down on an A-road or dual carriageway

Breaking down on a fast-moving major road can be every bit as dangerous as being forced to stop on the motorway. Here’s what to do:

  • Try to get off the dual carriageway or A-road on to a quieter minor road. Failing that, pull into a lay-by or get as far across to the left as possible.
  • Use your hazard lights and sidelights to warn other motorists of the danger.
  • Call a breakdown company or local garage to get assistance.
  • Put on a high-visibility jacket or vest if you have one.
  • Exit the car away from traffic if it is safe to do so. You can put a warning triangle behind your car.
  • Wait outside your vehicle on the other side of the safety barrier, and to the rear of your car.

How far away should you put the warning triangle?

Around 45 metres is a good distance, but it may need to be a bit further away if you’re stopped round a bend.


What to do if you break down on a country road

If your car has broken down on a remote or quiet country road, there might be less imminent danger. But at the same time, it can be hard to position your car safely away from other drivers.

  • Call a breakdown service or local garage if available.
  • Stay in the car if your vehicle isn’t causing an obstruction and can be seen clearly by other road users. Turn your hazard lights on if you think you might be causing an obstruction.
  • If it’s safe to do so, put a warning triangle about 45 metres behind your car. Leave your vehicle via the safest exit – usually on the passenger side.
  • If you think you need to wait outside the car, put on a high-visibility jacket if you have one.
  • If your car is blocking other traffic, call the police on the non-emergency 101 number. They might need to set up a diversion.

What to do if you break down in a city or town centre

If your car breaks down in a busy urban area like a city centre, it can be stressful – especially if you’re causing a blockage to other traffic.

  • If possible, try to move your car out of the way of other road users, for example into a parking spot or side road.
  • Put on your hazard lights if you need to warn other vehicles that you’ve broken down or if you’re causing an obstruction.
  • Call a breakdown service or local garage to provide assistance.
  • You could also consider opening your bonnet so that other road users know you’ve broken down. This might make them more sympathetic than if they think you have just stopped to pick up a passenger, for example.

What to do if your car has broken down on a roundabout

If your vehicle gets into difficulties on a roundabout, follow these steps:

  • Try to get off the roundabout as soon as you can – even if it’s not the right exit. It should be much safer to stop away from the roundabout. If this isn’t an option, try to stop near the left-hand edge of the roundabout away from an exit.
  • Put your hazard lights on and call for assistance.
  • If it’s safe to do so, get out of your car away from traffic, using the passenger door to exit to the edge of the roundabout.

What to do if you break down in a car park

A car park is likely to be one of the safest and most convenient places to break down. There should be room to leave your car while you wait for a recovery service.

  • If you’re causing an obstruction you could ask for help in pushing your vehicle to a parking space or other out-of-the-way spot.
  • Bear in mind that you could face parking charges while your car is there.

If possible make sure you have a valid ticket. If your car is going to be there for some time speak to a parking attendant or a member of staff of the business where the car park is located.

Some car parks, such as those at supermarkets or motorway service stations, allow free parking but only for a limited period, say, two hours.

If your car is there for longer than this, you could get a parking charge notice  (PCN) in the post.

Talk to staff to explain what’s happened and collect evidence that you’ve broken down – such as a photo of your car being repaired or the invoice from your breakdown company.

This could help you challenge your parking fine if necessary.


How to prepare for a car breakdown

Dealing with a vehicle breakdown is much more straightforward if you’re prepared.

As well as the advice given above, here are some extra tips:

  • Consider getting breakdown cover.
  • Keep a breakdown kit in your car at all times. This should include essentials such as a high-visibility jacket, a warning triangle and a torch.
  • Have your car serviced before you set off on any long journeys.
  • Don’t ignore any dashboard warning indicators or unusual noises that your car make. Get them checked out by a mechanic as soon as possible, before they develop into more serious problems.