What to do if your vehicle breaks down

A car breakdown is a stress-packed experience for anyone. But buying car breakdown protection is easy and should give you confidence to get on the road, whatever the weather. Even if your car’s a bit past its best. Yet if the worst happens, what’s the best thing to do? It depends on where you are.

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On a motorway

  • Pull over as soon as you can and put your hazard warning lights on.

  • Don’t attempt to position a warning triangle on the hard shoulder (often found in the boot of some cars). You’re too near speeding traffic. A gust of wind could send the sign into the path of fast-moving vehicles, causing an incident. 

  • Empty your car of all passengers and ask them to move behind the crash barrier. Try to get them to leave on the verge side of the car.

  • If your vehicle contains high visibility jackets, ask your passengers to wear them – and wear one yourself.

  • If you’ve pets, leave them in the car with a window slightly open. 

  • Call your breakdown provider for help.

  • Do not try to fix the problem yourself unless it is easy and safe to do so – for most breakdowns this is unlikely.

  • If you’re on a ‘smart’ motorway there is a higher risk of accident – so try to get to the nearest Emergency Refuge Area (ERA)

On an ‘A’ or ‘B’ road

  • Pull over safely and turn your hazard lights on. If you can find a place to park away from the main road, do so.

  • Make yourselves easily visible.

  • Ask any passengers to leave the car by the door nearest the kerbside and find a safe space to wait.

  • If it’s safe to do so put a warning triangle 50 or so metres behind your vehicle, alerting other road users to your presence. Some cars contain a warning triangle in the boot.

  • If your car is in the way of other vehicles call the police immediately. 

  • Depending on the issue it may be fixable by yourself once you, your passengers and the vehicle are safe. If not then leave the problem to the professional breakdown engineer.

What you need to tell your breakdown provider

  • First, your membership or policy details – name and number. Keep these to hand. They could be stored on your ‘phone. Or on a note stuck in your glove compartment. Or perhaps tucked in an under-seat tray compartment, if you have one

  • Try to figure out where you are. If you’re not sure, try to recall the nearest railway or petrol station. Are there any other obvious landmarks? Can your smartphone help with your location?

  • Once you’re talking to the breakdown operator, can you mention other details? Are children with you? A disabled passenger? A pregnant woman? This is information that may reduce your wait time in some circumstances

  • Most documentation is online. So if you don’t have it physically in your car use a smartphone to track down your info

  • If your mobile devices are out of juice, don’t panic. SOS phones are located every mile along motorways

  • Do you know the cause of the breakdown? Any advance information for the breakdown service is always helpful

What will your breakdown provider do next?

Most breakdown services aim to get to you inside 45 minutes, give or take. If your vehicle can’t be repaired by the roadside you will be towed to a garage. 

This is where the details of your policy come alive in a big way. First, if you have roadside assistance then you will be towed to the nearest garage. 

However, if you’ve got vehicle recovery cover then you will be towed to anywhere in the UK of your choice, within reason. 

  • Depending on the circumstances you may need to stay overnight in emergency accommodation. Or take advantage of a hire car to get you home while your car is being repaired

  • You may have a policy where you’re covered for any car you’re travelling in, be it a driver or passenger. Or your vehicle may be covered so any passenger can call for assistance

This is where the detail of your policy makes an impact. Choose with care.

What do I do if I don’t have breakdown cover?

You have three choices. 

  • Join a breakdown provider immediately though you will likely pay an additional charge – as much as £90 extra in some cases

  • Call a local garage and ask for a tow. Check their call-out fees and how much they charge per mile plus any towing or winching fees. Is VAT included or not?

If you have broken down where roadworks are ‘live’ then the Highways Agency may be able to tow you off the motorway. This is a free service in certain circumstances but it does not (and should not) replace breakdown cover

Compare instant breakdown policies here

By comparing breakdown cover providers, you can find a policy that gives you the level of cover you need at a price you can afford.