Driver Knowledge Tests

Ten inconvenient places to break down and what to do

However much preventative maintenance you do on your car there’s always the risk that you’ll get a puncture or something will break unexpectedly.

No breakdown is convenient, but some scenarios are worse than others (like breaking down on the way to an airport or breaking down in the outback). The two things you need to think about are:

  1. Is the car in a safe place and not endangering other road users?
  2. Who do you need to call to help you?

Your options for getting help are:

  1. Calling the police – the best option if the car is in a dangerous place
  2. Calling a breakdown service – the best option if your car is in a safe place and you have a membership
  3. Calling a private tow truck and arranging repairs yourself – the best option if you don’t have a membership to a breakdown service
  4. Calling a friend – the best option if you can’t afford a private towing company
  5. Flagging someone down to help – the best option if you are out of cellphone range.

Apart from the aforementioned outback/desert scenario, there are four main places you’ll break down: a multi-lane road or motorway, a single-lane road, a tunnel or off-road. Each requires a slightly different strategy so we’ve put together 10 examples and what you should do.

What to do if you break down in a tunnel

  • Try to get the vehicle out of the tunnel because tunnels often don’t have hard shoulders where you can get your car out of harm’s way; some tunnels have breakdown bays. Driving out is more important if your car catches fire, but don’t put yourself in danger.
  • Don’t make a u-turn or reverse.
  • If you have to stop, pull as far left as you can.
  • Put your hazard warning lights on.
  • Turn your engine off, but leave the key in (no one’s going anywhere in it if you’ve broken down, but if you need to leave the car and a tow truck driver arrives while you’re not there, it might be helpful for them to have access to the ignition).
  • If you have an engine fire, don’t open the bonnet as it adds oxygen to the fire. If you have a fire extinguisher, pull the bonnet release (this will open the bonnet a couple of centimetres) then squirt the fire extinguisher through that gap. If the fire extinguisher doesn’t work, move away from the car, preferably in front of it rather than behind where you’ll be in danger of other vehicles.
  • If you can call on your phone, call emergency services. Many tunnels have cameras which will spot your plight and the control room will automatically dispatch a tow truck. If you don’t have cellphone reception, find an emergency phone and this will alert the control room.
  • Stick to the protected walkways (if they are available)
  • Wait with the car until someone comes to help.

What to do if you break down on a road

You should be able to get your car to the side of the road, preferably off it. If there’s nowhere on the left to stop, but there is on the right, make that judgement call at the time, but don’t try to cross traffic if you have no power with which to do it. Use your indicators to let other motorists know which way you are going.

Don’t stop on soft surfaces where you might sink in. Be careful of long grass which might hide a steep bank.

Turn your hazard warning lights on once you’ve stopped (or if you start creating a hazard while coasting to a stop, but bear in mind your hazard warning lights override your indicators). You could also keep your sidelights on but be aware that if you have to wait a while, your battery will go flat much quicker. Lights are much better left on if the visibility is poor (e.g. fog or heavy rain).

If you have an emergency kit with a hi-vis vest, put it on, or try to wear clothing that’s as light as possible to improve your chances of being seen.

If you have a warning triangle, place it 50-100m behind your car. Trucks have different mandated distances for warning triangles.

Call for help. If you have no cellphone reception, flagging down another driver is safer than leaving your vehicle. Be aware of dehydration during the day and exposure at night.

If you are carrying animals, they will quickly get hot in your car if it’s sunny, but you must not let them out of the car if you cannot keep them completely under control; they could run across the road and cause another accident.

If it’s night, don’t stand in front of the lights as it makes the car less visible.

What to do if you break down on a freeway, motorway or other multi-lane road

Some of the advice for breaking down on a road applies to motorways. Try to get your car to an outside lane and onto the hard shoulder. If you can’t make it to the outside lane, e.g. you’re stuck in the middle lane in bumper-to-bumper traffic and your car dies, put your hazard warning lights on and stay in your car until it’s safe to get out. Traffic will eventually slow down around you, giving you a chance to get out of your car, but watch out for filtering motorcyclists.

Turn on your hazard warning lights

Don’t use hazard warning triangles if you are parked in the hard shoulder – they get in the way of breakdown response vehicles.

Preferably use an emergency phone on a motorway as it has a precise location or use your cellphone if you know exactly where you are. Face traffic while you’re on the phone so that you don’t inadvertently step back into the traffic. Tell the operator if you need any specialist help.

Once you’ve reported the incident, wait in the car, on the bank next to your car or in front of your car if there’s no bank.

What to do if you break down on a bridge

If you break down on the downhill side of the bridge, coast to the bottom (usually, bridges don’t have hard shoulders or breakdown bays)

If you break down on the uphill side, try to get to an outside lane and pull as far over as possible.

Wait in your car and call emergency services. Traffic control will undoubtedly see you if you are on a popular route such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The same advice applies in terms of contacting emergencies services.

What do to if you break down on a country road (especially at night)

Unlit country roads where you might not see another car for several hours are an awful place to break down. Spotty cellphone reception makes it worse, while tired children would make it unbearable. Ideally, you would have told someone your travel plans so when you don’t turn up they can raise the alarm, but this won’t always be the case.

The priority is to ensure your vehicle is safely parked and visible to other vehicles. Get it as far off the road as you can but without risking it dropping in a ditch or getting stuck in a soft road shoulder. Be careful of things like rocks hidden by long grass.

Let the car settle a minute then try to restart it. Don’t flatten your battery attempting it as you might need to turn on your lights at some point and you’ll probably want to use your hazard warning lights, especially if your car isn’t that visible.

If you have children with you, they will quickly become bored and distracting so give them something to do to keep themselves entertained and don’t let them wander off from the car, especially as you don’t know what wildlife is hanging around.

Do you remember passing a house or can you see a house from where you are? If you have to leave the car, leave a note on the windscreen and leave your bonnet up. This way, if someone finds it, they’ll know where you are. Don’t attempt to walk any more than a few minutes if the temperature is soaring as you can quickly become dehydrated and disorientated. It’s best to wait in the shade and flag someone down.

If you do manage to get hold of someone, breakdown recovery could be several hours away.

Running out of fuel on a quiet rural road could mean a long walk to get help

If the road has very little traffic and you are worried about being found, creating an unmissable obstacle on the road is an option. For example, a large branch on the road with HELP spelt out in stones can ensure you don’t miss a potential rescuer through being asleep or away from the vehicle. Don’t do anything dangerous, though – you don’t want to create another breakdown or accident scene.

What to do if you break down while driving to a meeting

The car spluttering to a halt when you’re on your way to an important meeting or job interview is frustrating. It can take at least 30 minutes for breakdown services to arrive, even in the city, and it’s unlikely you have that amount of time up your sleeve. If it’s a flat tyre, you could change this in less than 15 minutes, assuming no issues (when was the last time you checked the tyre pressure in the spare?); if you have a puncture repair kit that comes in a can, this can reinflate your tyre in less than a minute and you’ll be able to get to your meeting then sort out a replacement tyre. If you call ahead to your meeting or appointment and explain the reason you’ll be late, they might be fine with a 5-10-minute delay. Don’t put yourself in danger when changing the tyre – get well off the road, but not so far off that you slide into a ditch.

If you can park your car legally, there’s no reason why you can’t leave it there and get a taxi, walk or hitch a lift for the remainder of the distance. If you can’t park it legally, you will need to wait until a tow truck can remove it. If it’s in a dangerous place, call the police and have them help.

What to do if you break down in bad weather

We can get some very heavy tropical storms which can cause flooding and very high winds. We also have mountainous regions with snowy weather. Breaking down in either of these situations can be life-threatening.

If you break down in a storm with heavy rain and strong winds, you must ensure that you are not in an area that could be exposed to flash floods as your car could be swept away. Read this article about driving in a flood. Strong winds are equally as dangerous as they can blow down trees and power lines. It’s not the wind that is the problem, it’s what the wind carries. Large objects can be picked up and slammed into your car. If you are in a high-sided vehicle, like a motorhome, it can be blown over.

If you are driving in snow, you should have items such as a shovel, torch, snow chains, gloves, warm clothes, food and water. Remain in your car if it breaks down as it’s easier for emergency services to find a car than a person.

The best option is not to travel in these types of weather conditions.

What to do if your car conks out in a medical emergencies

Rushing your partner to the hospital while she’s in labour or transporting your child with a fractured wrist or fever are scenarios where a breakdown adds to the drama and suffering. It’s important to think of the comfort and safety of the other person. Stop the vehicle in a safe place. If you can’t get your vehicle restarted, call a taxi or a friend to help. If it’s life-threatening, consider an ambulance.

What do to if your car stops on the motorway fast lane or middle lane

If your car begins to play up, getting across to the hard shoulder is the priority, but it’s not always possible if the traffic is bumper-to-bumper, stop-start, and your vehicle conks out suddenly. The middle lane is the worst lane to break down in. You will be the focus of irate motorists as the tailback quickly forms. In the right-hand lane you can often get at least partially off the motorway, but in the middle lane there’s no hiding.

Immediately put your hazard warning lights on. Call the police to let them know you need help; they’ll need to know where you are. Often, you’ll be in range of a traffic monitoring camera and someone will automatically be dispatched to help you. Stay in your car – don’t go wandering all over the motorway.

When the police arrive they may either push your car to the side of the road or they might have been able to find a tow truck to help

What to do when breaking down on holiday

If you’ve hired a car there should be instructions in your glovebox that explain what to do. Usually a local breakdown company can be called to assist and it might be covered under the price of your car hire. A good reason to have travel insurance is that it often includes some car-related troubles that you might encounter, too, especially if a breakdown causes you to miss a flight.

This company might be the one that saves the day if you break down on holiday in Germany

General advice

It’s best not to attempt roadside repairs other than changing the wheels on the side of your car away from traffic. A flat tyre on the other side puts you too close to other vehicles for it to be repaired safely without another person or vehicle creating a buffer zone.

If you feel unsafe, e.g. someone suspicious approaches you, get back in your car and lock the doors.

Darren is an expert on driving and transport, and is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists

Posted in Advice
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