What to do if your car breaks down

Last updated March 08, 2021

Breaking down isn’t just an inconvenience, it can also be dangerous, therefore it’s important to know what to do if your car breaks down and how to stay safe. In this guide, you can find out what steps you should take depending on where you’ve broken down.

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Broken down on a motorway

Breaking down on a motorway can be particularly dangerous due to other vehicles moving at high speeds and the amount of traffic. If you find that you have broken down on the motorway, you should follow the steps below:

  1. Pull over into the hard shoulder or exit the motorway where safe to do so and put your hazard lights on.
  2. Once safely stopped in 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.

What if you break down on a smart motorway?

If you break down on a smart motorway, there may not be a hard shoulder to pull into. In this case, you should instead try to pull into the closest Emergency Refuge Area or the next exit of the motorway, depending on whatever is closer. If you are unable to reach either, you should pull up as close as you can to the left of the motorway with your hazard lights on. Once stationary, you and your passengers should exit the car from the passenger’s side and move behind the crash barrier.

What if you break down in the middle or outside lanes?

In the unfortunate case that you cannot reach the hard shoulder or Emergency Refuge Area, and you’ve broken down in the middle or outside lanes you should remain in your vehicle. You should keep your seatbelt on, turn on your hazard lights and call 999 immediately. If you’re on a smart motorway there will be an operator checking the cameras for any breakdowns and they can close the lane to traffic once they’re aware your car has broken down.

Broken 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 to if you break down on a motorway. You can keep you and your passengers safe by following the steps below:

  1. Pull over 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.

Broken down on B-road or 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).

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 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.
  • 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.

Whether or not you need to call the police will depend on your circumstances. For example, if you feel unsafe or if you feel that you are risking the safety of other road users, you may need to call the police for them to assist and close off a section of the road.

Whilst it is impossible to rule out the possibility of your car unexpectedly breaking down, you can reduce the likelihood by ensuring your car is properly maintained. This includes getting the car serviced regularly, keeping your MOT up-to-date and having frequent check-ups at a trusted garage.

Furthermore, you should keep an eye on your fuel gauge to ensure it’s not running low and get your car seen by an expert as soon as any dashboard warning lights illuminate.