How to Prepare For Car Breakdown and Deal with Roadside Emergencies

As we approach the vacation season, I want to cover the basics of preparing for roadside emergencies and dealing with car breakdown. I have had my fair share of roadside emergencies and breakdowns. My experience includes minor incidents such as punctured tire, malfunctioned windshield wiper, drained battery, and locked in key. And the more serious stuff like overheating, engine failure, and sliding off the road into a ditch during a heavy snow storm.

car-breakdown1

Photo by andrijbulba via Flickr

Well Maintained Car Is The Best Medicine Against Roadside Emergencies

One of the best things you can do to avoid or minimize breakdowns and emergencies is to keep your car in the best shape possible. Beside from the regular maintenance, you should:

  • Check the air pressure in all tires, including the spare — a good tire gauge is a must in this case.
  • Check tire thread wear.
  • Check all fluids to make sure they properly filled between the max and min line.
  • Check all belts and hoses for signs of deterioration and fluid leak.
  • Check all lights

Learning how to do these basic inspections on your own will save you a lot of money. However, you should consult a mechanic if you’re not sure.

Roadside Emergency Kit

raodside-assistance-kitBeside a cell phone* and the stuff that comes with the car — i.e., spare tire, lug wrench, and car jack — you should invest in a good roadside emergency kit. However, you might have to buy individual pieces if you want the really good stuff. Here are a few important ones that I want to highlight.

* Unsecured items, including cell phone, will be thrown about if you are involved in an accident. Make sure you keep vital items like your cell phone and escape hammer in a secured but easily accessible location.

Flashlight

Unless you planning to travel only when the sun is out, carrying a good flashlight in your car is essential. I prefer the ruggedized and water resistant type, but any flashlight with a good set of batteries will work fine. Another good option is to get flashlight that comes with magnet or clip-on attachment, or a headlamp that you can wear on your head, so both hands are free.

Heavy Duty Jumper Cable (Power Booster Cable)

Alternator and battery can fail unexpectedly, and you can leave your lights on by accident. A good jumper cable is a must, especially for older cars. My jumper cable certainly saved me, as well as other stranded drivers, a number of times — yes, I do occasionally stop to give people a jump.

If you’re really desperate, you could also use the jumper cable as a temporary tow rope to pull your car out of a ditch.

Tire Sealer Inflator

I have never experience a blowout before, but have my fair share of flat tires. I was able to get myself to safety on those occasions, and tire sealer inflator helped me get to the nearest shop a few times.

Heavy Duty Tow Rope

I don’t have a tow rope in my car, but I am glad the guy in the Jeep Cherokee did. About 10 years ago, I was trying to come home from college during a heavy snow storm. There was a tricky stretch of road down the mountain, unfortunately my little Honda Civic fish tailed and spun out. My friends and I didn’t hit anything, but we did end up in the ditch. Fortunately, a rally nice guy pulled over and towed us out. He definitely saved us that day.

Other Items You May want to carry

Survival Supplies

In addition to roadside emergency supplies above, you may also want to carry some survival supplies in your car. About two years ago, I had to drive in another heavy snow storm and it took me 6 hours to make a 2 hours trip. Along the way, there were at least 20 cars that either hit the median or in the ditch. Rescue could take a couple of hours for these folks and I am sure some of these items would come in handy:

  • Food – You can keep a couple packs of granola bar or even canned food in the car
  • Water
  • Blanket and extra winter clothes – If you’re stuck when it’s cold, blanket and extra clothes are essential.
  • Candle and matches – Flashlight can’t start a fire or warm things up. Besides starting a fire, a candle can warm up canned food or water in a metal cup.
  • Car escape tool

Roadside Safety Tips

Being out of the car on the highway is one of the most dangerous things you can do; however, it might be a necessary thing for you to do. If your car breakdown on the highway, you should employ every mean possible to maximize your visibility.

Here are some roadside safety tips:

  • Try to pull as far away from the roadway as possible while staying on the paved road.
  • If you are dealing with a flat or blown out tire, try to pull over into a flat area so that you can safely jack up the car.
  • Turn your wheel away from the roadway so that it doesn’t accidentally roll into the oncoming traffic.
  • Turn on your emergency blinkers (aka, hazard flashers)
  • If you are traveling with children and/or pets, move them to a safe location away from the car. If this isn’t possible, make sure they are properly secured inside the car.
  • Exit and enter the car using the door opposite the roadway to stay as far from moving traffic as possible.
  • Use cones, reflective triangles, or flares to give you as much space as possible. At the minimum you should have 3 of these. Place the first flare at least 50 feet directly behind the car. Place the second flare midway between the first flare and your car, but a few feet further toward the open lane, place the last flare toward the end of your car and a few feet into the roadway so you can divert traffic away from your car.

If you’re facing adverse condition, call the police. Don’t try to fix the problem on your own!

What about car accident?

I am not going to cover car breakdown that is the result of an accident here. If you’re involved in an accident, make sure you read these articles:

Roadside Assistance Program

aaa_logo_lgIf you travel frequently, you should consider joining Roadside Assistance program. Many insurance companies offer some level of roadside assistance that include emergency help and free towing; however the best program is probably the AAA (American Automobile Association).

AAA is an association of regional automotive clubs. However, you can enjoy member benefits from anywhere in the country. AAA clubs primarily provide emergency road services, which include services such as, lockouts, winching, tire changes, automotive first aid, and towing. These services are handled by private local towing companies contracted by a state AAA club.

AAA also offers many other benefits, such as road maps, travel publications, rate restaurants and hotels rating, discounts, reservations, and more.

Do you have any tip to help other readers deal with car breakdown and roadside emergencies? Please share your thought!

About the Author

By , on May 12, 2009
Pinyo
Pinyo is the owner of Moolanomy Personal Finance. He is a licensed Realtor specializing in residential homes in the Northern Virginia area. Over the past 20 years, Pinyo has enjoyed a diverse career as an investor, entrepreneur, business executive, educator, and financial literacy author.

Leave Your Comment (12 Comments)

  1. hustler says:

    Great suggestions. I am always so worried that I’ll get a flat or my car will die while I’m out. It made me feel better to practice changing my tire in the comfort of my driveway. At least I’ll be somewhat prepared if I do need to know how.

  2. Pinyo says:

    @Jake – I updated the link to a super duty tow strap as per your suggestion.

  3. That tow rope you linked to won’t get you very far. It appears to be better suited for actually towing a vehicle on the road, as opposed to retrieving a vehicle. 14 feet is hardly ever going to be enough for a helper vehicle to pull you out of that ditch without the risk of them getting stuck themselves. What you should be looking for is a recovery tow strap – the nice fat yellow ones. I’d get a 30′ one, and you should really buy two, in case you need double the length, or in case some moron doesn’t let out the slack and breaks the first one (namely my brother in law). Remember to always wrap the tow strap around the axle, never hook it to a bumper (unless you’re in the market for a new one) or, believe it or not, don’t even hook it to a hitch.

  4. Pinyo says:

    Believe it or not, but I had to use a jumper cable this past Thursday. I waited for my wife in the car for over two hours. Apparently, the radio was enough to drain the 4 years old battery. Oops.

  5. Jerry says:

    These are good tips. We used to have AAA but most car insurance companies offer roadside assistance. But, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be as prepared as possible should something unexpected happen. Preparation leads to much fewer headaches in the long run!

  6. Kate says:

    If only I could have read this post back in the day BEFORE I had all of my harrowing experiences in my old Audi. That thing left me stranded so many times! But, I think the big thing to remember here is that proper maintenance is the best way to avoid getting stranded (not something I was so good at as a teenager and young twentysomething)and thus, save money. I learned my lesson the hard way, but it’s so true that the power of small makes itself known in every facet of life. It’s up to you to harness it and take full advantage!

  7. Pinyo says:

    Thank you everyone.

    @Alan – That really does suck. I am sorry to hear that and glad you made it out okay.

  8. Alan says:

    If I had a car…

    Actually, this one time I borrowed my sister’s car to drive my girlfriend to the ferry (about an hour, hour and a half drive). We got there just fine, but I noticed that the car was losing some oil. Sadly, there was nothing near the ferry that sold oil, so I decided to drive back a couple of kilometers to get to a gas station. Well, I got to a gas station and bought some oil, poured it in, and took a peak under the car. Yep, it poured straight back out.

    So I was stranded in a city I didn’t know, without a phone, at 11pm at night. Worst. Situation. Ever.

    I wish I had a survival kit in the car to keep me fed!

  9. Glen Craig says:

    Great info! I think for most of us we don’t think of these items until it’s too late!

    To add to maintenance, make sure you check your first aid kit, flash light, etc… every six months or so to make sure everything is up to date. Here’s what happens to us – over the course of the year the kids need a band aid here and there and by the time you need the first aid kit there’s nothing left.

  10. MLR says:

    Thanks for the linkage to my post!

    Bright minds think alike ;)

  11. Money Beagle says:

    This is very good information. I have thought about adding some of this stuff to our cars for awhile. Now I’m going to bookmark this article so that it reminds me to do so. We have a little one on the way now so that definitely gives me extra motivation to make sure we’re prepared. Thanks for the tips.

  12. Baker says:

    Very well put together, Pinyo! My wife and I aren’t nearly as prepared as we should be. Luckily, we haven’t had any emergencies where we’ve this sort of preparation pays off. I need articles like this (in topics I’m not strong in) to help push me into action!

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