What to Do if Your Car Breaks Down

Your car breaking down on a busy highway or interstate not only puts you at risk, but other drivers as well. With cars, SUVs and semis zooming by, it’s easy to panic. So what should you do if your car breaks down on the highway?

You can prepare, minimize stress and maintain calm by keeping the following guidelines in mind and being ready for breakdowns before they happen.

Preventive maintenance and repairs are always best. But even with good maintenance, things happen - especially with today’s advanced vehicle technology. Modern cars are often vulnerable to hard-to-fix technical failures. Keyless ignition may drain batteries faster, for example, and tire-inflation kits, in lieu of spares, don’t always work.

Steer clear at the first sign of trouble

Steer your vehicle as far out of the travel lanes as possible. Note your location for police or other responders.

If you can pull over to the side of the road, exit through the passenger-side door, away from traffic, then stand far away - behind the guardrail, if possible. Many oncoming drivers tend to steer toward whatever they’re looking at, whether it's a crash ahead or a car breakdown on the roadside.

Next, call attention to yourself and your vehicle. You want to be seen quickly from as far a distance as possible. Turn on your hazard lights, don a reflective vest, wave a flashlight and set up reflective triangles or flares.

If you can’t remove the vehicle from the travel lane and can’t exit, contact emergency services, turn on your hazard lights and keep your seatbelt on.

Prepping for car breakdowns

Despite vehicle advances, it's likely you’ll have a car breakdown at some point, such as a blown tire from a nail or roadway debris. Stay safe by being prepared for such emergencies. Kits are inexpensive and may be bought at discount or drug stores.

Consider keeping the following items in your car: 

  • Cell phone with charger
  • Notebook and pencil
  • Extra medications
  • Vehicle operating manual
  • Emergency service info, such as phone numbers
  • Flashlight and extra batteries (these should be checked often)
  • Drinking water and preserved food
  • Jumper cables
  • Tire-pressure gauge
  • Reflectors or flares
  • Signal flag or reflective vest or scarf
  • Windshield-washer fluid and wiping cloth
  • Coolant
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Ice scraper, snow brush, snow shovel and cat litter, in lieu of sand, where needed
  • Heavy gloves
  • Thermal or safety blanket
  • A chemical heat source such as hand warmers
  • Candles and waterproof matches
  • Jack and a flat board for soft surfaces
  • Lug wrench for changing flats
  • Toolkit with screwdriver, pliers, duct tape and adjustable wrench
  • Umbrella
  • Extra fuses and fan/alternator belt
  • First-aid kit

Also, consider buying a spare tire if one didn’t come with the car.

Calling for help

When out of harm’s way, assess the situation and call for help, such as from Nationwide’s Roadside Assistance, which will be there when your car breaks down on the highway, when you have a flat, need a jump or get locked out.

You can also lessen your stress with a set of emergency numbers ready so that you don’t have to look them up. These include loved ones, police and your roadside assistance 800 number. Keep them in your phone as well as on a paper attached to your insurance and registration info.

Staying calm, steering out of traffic if possible, and being prepared for an emergency can help you stay safe when your car breaks down on the highway.

Insurance terms, definitions and explanations are intended for informational purposes only and do not in any way replace or modify the definitions and information contained in individual insurance contracts, policies or declaration pages, which are controlling. Such terms and availability may vary by state and exclusions may apply.