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Troubleshoot Vehicle Breakdowns

Vehicle breakdowns can be scary. Thankfully, precautionary measures can be taken to reduce the chances of experiencing one. The easiest way is to keep your vehicle well-maintained. In the cold winter months, it’s especially important to check the air pressure in all tires, tire tread wear and your vehicle’s fluids regularly.

You should also stay one step ahead by carrying an emergency roadside kit in your vehicle. AARP recommends your emergency roadside kit contain:

Most important

  • Spare tire in good condition
  • Jack and lug wrench for changing tires
  • Flashlight with good batteries
  • Fire extinguisher
  • First aid kit
  • Flares or reflective day/night device
  • A white rag or flag to signal for help
  • Spare fuses
  • Jumper cables

Good to have

  • Ice scraper
  • Pocket knife
  • Rags
  • Water
  • Empty container (at least two gallons)
  • Pair of pliers
  • Flat head and Phillips head screwdrivers
  • Adjustable wrench
  • Electrical and duct tape
  • Sandpaper (to clean battery terminals if the car will not start)
  • Tire chains, sand or kitty litter (for extra traction in snow or ice)
  • Small shovel
  • Camera to document a crash

During the cold-weather months, your kit should also include a warm blanket. If you are a frequent traveler, consider investing in a roadside assistance service.

Even with all these precautions, breakdowns can still happen. Whether your vehicle is having a mechanical failure, an overheated engine or a flat tire, it’s important to know what to do in case it does break down. Hopefully it never happens, but if it does, having a reaction plan and knowing how to stay safe are vital aspects of smart driving.

Tips and To-Dos When Troubleshooting a Breakdown:

If you experience vehicle problems while driving, your first priority is to pull off to a safe location away from the flow of traffic.

  • Take your foot off the gas pedal.
  • Do not brake hard or suddenly.
  • Ideally, aim for the right shoulder of the road — pulling into the left had shoulder is a last resort.
  • Be sure to park with your wheels turned to the right so that if your vehicle is struck from behind, your vehicle will not cross the lane into moving traffic. Once parked, stay inside your vehicle with your seat belt on, whenever possible. If you must exit the vehicle, always do so from the right side to avoid traffic.

Once off the road, make your vehicle visible.

  • Use your hazard lights (“emergency flashers”) —this warns other drivers that something is wrong.
  • If it is dark, turn on the interior dome light.

Triple-check before getting out of the vehicle

  • Make sure it is safe to get out of your vehicle, especially on a busy highway. If you feel you would be safer in the vehicle, go with your instincts and stay inside with your seat belt on.
    • If you judge it safe to do so, put flares or reflective triangles behind your vehicle as follows: one near your vehicle, usually about 10 feet behind it, and the other one farther away.
  • If you made it to the right-hand side of the road, get out through the passenger-side door.

If your engine is smoking or you see flames, get out of your vehicle as quickly as you can.

When you are safe, you can call for help.

  • If you have a roadside assistance provider, give them a call.
  • If you do not, call for a tow truck or call 9-1-1 if you need further assistance.
  • In the case that you do not have a cell phone, hang a white cloth or a piece of paper out your window and wait for the highway patrol.
  • If you are driving alone at night, be careful about accepting help from strangers and stay inside your car if you can. Make sure your doors are locked and your windows are up.

If you have a flat tire, do not attempt to change it unless you can get to the side of the road and the tire is on the side of the vehicle that is safely away from traffic. Remember, safety must take precedence over your schedule or other concerns you may have.

For more tips on how to stay safe on the road, consider taking a driver improvement course, such as the AARP Smart Driver™ course, available online or in a classroom setting near you, in both English and Spanish. In some states, you may even be eligible for a multi-year insurance discount upon completion of the course.* AARP membership is not required to take the course. For more information, please visit or call 1-877-846-3299.


*The insurance premium discount is not available in all states for the online or the classroom versions of the course. Please consult your insurance agent for further details.

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