What to do if your car breaks down

Last updated 15 February, 2022

Breaking down can be a stressful and potentially dangerous experience, so it’s important to know the steps to take to keep you and your passengers safe. In this guide you can find out the correct steps to take should your car break down depending on which road type you are on.

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What to do if your car breaks down

Here are the first steps to take if your car has broken down:

  1. Attempt to pull over where safe so you are not obstructing other road users.
  2. Switch on your hazard lights.
  3. If you have broken down in the road, place a warning triangle approximately 45 metres behind the rear of your car (unless you are on the motorway).
  4. If visibility is low, switch on your sidelights and ensure you are not blocking others from seeing your lights.
  5. If you have breakdown cover, call your provider once all the above steps have been carried out and you are in a safe place.

What to do if you have broken down on a motorway

It can be very dangerous to break down on a motorway due to the high speeds other drivers are travelling at. However, the first step is always to remain calm and follow the steps below to ensure you remain safe:

  1. Pullover into the hard shoulder or exit the motorway where safe to do so and put your hazard lights on.
  2. Once safely stopped on the hard shoulder, you and your passengers should exit the vehicle when safe to do so, ensuring there are no moving vehicles nearby when you open your doors. If possible, you should try to get everyone to exit the car on the side of the barrier rather than the road.
  3. Everybody in the vehicle should proceed to move behind the crash barrier. Where you have them in the car, you and all of your passengers should wear high visibility jackets.
  4. If you have pets in the car, you shouldn’t remove them. Instead, you should open the window slightly to ensure there is enough ventilation.
  5. Call your breakdown cover provider to get assistance from a professional. Do not try to fix the problem yourself at the side of the road as this could put you and other road users at risk.

Breaking down on a smart motorway

If you break down on a smart motorway it can be a little different. Due to the motorway upgrades, there may not be a hard shoulder to pull into. In which case you should try to safely pull into the emergency refuge area where there is one. If you cannot make it to an emergency refuge area, you should pull over as close to the left side of the motorway as possible and put your hazard lights on. Once stationary everybody in the vehicle should exit safely and stand behind the crash barrier.

What to do if you break down on an A-road or Dual Carriageway

If you have broken down on an A-road or dual carriageway, the steps you will need to take will be different from when you break down on a motorway. You can keep you and your passengers safe by following the steps below:

  1. Pullover into a lay-by or exit the carriageway, whichever is the safest. If you are unable to do either of these, you should try to pull as far away from the road as possible.
  2. Put on your hazard lights to increase your vehicle's visibility to other road users. Where visibility is particularly poor, you may consider also putting on your fog lights.
  3. Once safe to do so, you and your passengers should exit the vehicle from the side furthest away from the road and stand away from the car in a safe location. If you have high visibility jackets, you and your passengers should wear them.
  4. When you’re all in a safe place, you should call your breakdown provider and request help. You should not try to fix the issue yourself as you could be putting yourself or other road users at risk.
  5. Where it is safe to do so, you should place a warning triangle around 45-50 meters behind the car to warn other road users of an obstruction in the road ahead. If you have broken down on a bend, it is recommended that you put it before the bend, where it is visible to other drivers.

What to do if you have broken down on a B-road or a country lane

If you’ve broken down on B-roads or country lanes, you can still be in danger to yourself and other road users. Therefore, it is important to remain vigilant and follow the steps below:

  1. Switch on your hazard lights and pull over to a safe place away from traffic where possible. Where visibility is limited, you may want to consider turning on your sidelights and fog lights too.
  2. You and your passengers should leave the car through the doors away from the road and put on a reflective jacket where available.
  3. Move to a safe location away from the traffic and place a warning triangle around 45 meters behind your vehicle if you have one, to alert other road users. If you have broken down on a bend, it may be better to place this before the corner where it is most visible.
  4. Call your local breakdown provider or a local garage for help. If you are obstructing the road, you should call the police to make them aware by dialling 101 (non-emergency number).

What information should you provide to your breakdown provider?

  1. You will need your policy information for the breakdown provider to find your account to ensure you are covered for the call out.
  2. You will need to tell your provider your current location so they can come to your assistance. If you are unsure of your location, you may be able to find this using a map on your smartphone. Some companies such as the AA will now also accept the location from “What3Words”, which is an app that will determine your location through the coordinates of three words. Therefore, it might be worth downloading this app if you are going on a long journey.
  3. It is worth mentioning your circumstances to the agent on the phone, such as if you are with children. This could affect how long you are waiting for them to arrive if you are deemed high or low risk.
  4. If you know the cause of the breakdown, you should provide this information to the breakdown provider so they can be more prepared when they arrive.
  5. If you don’t have a mobile phone and you’ve broken down on the motorway, you may have to use an emergency phone which is available every mile to request emergency assistance.

Frequently asked questions

If you have broken down without breakdown cover, you can call a local garage to come and tow your vehicle. You may be charged a call-out fee, plus any fees for towing and storing your vehicle. If you have broken down on a motorway or dual carriageway where there are roadworks, you may be able to get Highways England to tow you off the motorway free of charge, however, this may not always be available.

To help you stay safe, there are a few things you should not do in the event of a break down:

  • Don’t remove your pets from the vehicle. They’re safer inside the broken-down car and all you should do is open the window slightly for ventilation on a hot day.
  • Don’t attempt to repair your car at the roadside as this may put you and other road users at risk. If you want to repair the car yourself, you should do so once it has been towed to a safer place.
  • Don’t put a warning triangle behind your car on a motorway, as it could blow into the road and cause an accident when other vehicles are travelling at high speeds.

You can never pre-empt your car breaking down, however, there are steps you can take to reduce the risk including properly maintaining your car. This includes getting the car serviced regularly, keeping your MOT up-to-date and having frequent check-ups at a trusted garage.

You should always keep an eye on your dashboard for any warning lights that appear and ensure your fuel gauge doesn’t get too low. See our article on dashboard lights here to understand what each light means.