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How to Avoid a Breakdown When Your Vehicle Breaks Down

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It’s stressful when your car breaks down, but there are steps to take to stay safe and get help quickly.

Vehicle breakdowns are bad enough without the added stress of being unsure what to do if you experience one. Whether your vehicle is having a mechanical failure, an overheated engine or a flat tire, it’s important to know what to do. Hopefully, it never happens, but if it does, having a reaction plan and knowing how to stay safe are vital.

Keeping these do’s and don’ts in mind can help keep you and other motorists safer when forced to the side of the road with a vehicle breakdown.

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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 suddenly. 
  • Ideally, aim for the right shoulder of the road — pulling into the left-hand 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 — this warns other drivers that something is wrong. 
  • If it is dark, also turn on the interior dome light. 

Triple-check before getting out of the vehicle.

  • Make sure it is safe to get out, especially on a busy highway. If you feel it would be safer in the vehicle, go with your instincts and stay inside with your seat belt on. 
  • If you made it to the right-hand side of the road, get out through the passenger-side door. 
  • 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 your engine is smoking or you see flames, get out of your vehicle as quickly as you can.

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When you are safe, call for help.

  • If you have a roadside assistance provider, give them a call. 
  • If you don’t have a provider, call for a tow truck if you need further assistance, or call 911 if it is an emergency. 
  • If you don’t have a cellphone, hang a white cloth or piece of paper out of 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. 

Remember, safety must take precedence over your schedule or other concerns you may have. 

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For more tips on how to stay safe on the road, consider taking a driver refresher course, such as the AARP Smart Driver online course, available in both English and Spanish. Use promo code ROADSIDE30 to save 30 percent on the online course.

*In some states, you may be eligible for a multiyear discount on your auto insurance upon completion of the course.

**AARP membership is not required to take the course. For more information, go to or call 877-846-3299.

***Register by Jan. 15, 2017. You then have 60 days (30 days in Connecticut and New York) to complete the course at your own pace. 

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

Kyle Rakow is Vice President and National Director of AARP Driver Safety at AARP. He directs the largest driver improvement course in America designed for drivers age 50 and older. He can be reached at

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