What to do if your vehicle breaks down

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A car breakdown is a stressful experience for anyone, here’s everything you need to know about how to stay safe and get the help you need.

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Breaking down is a driver’s worst nightmare, which is why it’s really important to have the right protection in place. Buying breakdown cover is easy and should give you confidence to get on the road, whatever the weather. 

But when the worst happens, what’s the best thing to do? It depends on where you are and what protection you have in place. Here’s what you need to know.

On a motorway

  • Pull over as soon as you can and put your hazard warning lights on

  • Don’t attempt to position a warning triangle on the hard shoulder (often found in the boot of some cars). You’re too near to speeding traffic. A gust of wind could send the sign into the path of fast-moving vehicles, causing an incident 

  • Empty your car of all passengers and ask them to move behind the crash barrier. Try to get them to exit the vehicle through the doors on the verge side of the car

  • If your vehicle contains high visibility jackets, ask your passengers to wear them – and wear one yourself

  • If you’ve pets, leave them in the car with a window slightly open 

  • Call your breakdown provider for help

  • Do not try to fix the problem yourself unless it is easy and safe to do so – for most breakdowns this is unlikely

  • If you’re on a ‘smart’ motorway there is a higher risk of accident – so try to get to the nearest Emergency Refuge Area (ERA)

On an ‘A’ or ‘B’ road

  • Pull over safely and turn your hazard lights on. If you can find a place to park away from the main road, do so

  • Make yourselves easily visible

  • Ask any passengers to leave the car by the door nearest the kerbside and find a safe space to wait

  • If it’s safe to do so, put a warning triangle 50 or so metres behind your vehicle, alerting other road users to your presence. Some cars have a warning triangle in the boot

  • If your car is in the way of other vehicles, call the police immediately 

  • Don’t try and fix the problem yourself unless it is safe and easy to do so. Make sure all your passengers are out of the car before you attempt any fixes. If you can’t fix it safely, then leave the problem to the professional breakdown engineer

What you need to tell your breakdown provider

  • First, you’ll need to find your membership or policy details if you have them with you. Keep these to hand if you can. They could be stored on your phone. Or on a note stuck in your glove compartment. Or perhaps tucked in an under-seat tray compartment.

  • You’ll also need to get the phone number of the breakdown provider. If you can’t find your policy details you can probably get the number online - but be cautious. Sneaky claims management companies but advertising through Google which means that they often pop up as the first option when you search for ‘company name, breakdown cover’. If you click through one of these by mistake, you’ll end up with a claims company and they won’t always tell you. Instead, go to the homepage of your provider, and navigate to their breakdown hotline from there

  • Before you dial, try to figure out where you are. If you’re not sure, try to remember the nearest railway or petrol station. Are there any other obvious landmarks? Using a maps app on a smartphone is probably the easiest way to do this. The more accurate you can be, the quicker help will get to you

  • Once you’re talking to the breakdown operator, make sure you give them any extra details that might be relevant. For instance: Are children with you? A disabled passenger? A pregnant woman? If there are high risk people with you, then help might arrive more quickly 

  • Most documentation is online. So, if you don’t have it physically in your car use a smartphone to track down your info

  • If your mobile devices are out of juice, don’t panic. SOS phones are located every mile along motorways

  • Do you know the cause of the breakdown? Describe the issues your car is having. Any advance information for the breakdown service is always helpful

What will your breakdown provider do next?

Most breakdown services aim to get to you inside 45 minutes, give or take. If your vehicle can’t be repaired by the roadside, you will be towed to a garage. 

This is where having the details of your policy can help in a big way because it changes what happens next. 

If you have roadside assistance, then you will be towed to the nearest garage. 

However, if you’ve got vehicle recovery cover then you will be towed to anywhere you choose in the UK, within reason. 

  • Depending on the circumstances you may need to stay overnight in emergency accommodation or take advantage of a hire car to get you home while your car is being repaired

  • You may have a policy where you’re covered for any car you’re travelling in, even if you’re a passenger. Equally, your vehicle may be covered so anyone using it (including passengers) can call for assistance

What can I do if I don’t have breakdown cover?

You have three choices. 

  • Join a breakdown provider immediately though you will likely pay an additional charge – as much as £90 extra in some cases

  • Call a local garage and ask for a tow. Check their call-out fees and how much they charge per mile plus any towing or winching fees. You should also check whether VAT is included or not otherwise you could pay more than you were expecting.

If you have broken down where roadworks are ‘live’ then the Highways Agency may be able to tow you off the motorway. This is a free service in certain circumstances, but it does not (and should not) replace breakdown cover.

By comparing breakdown cover providers, you can find a policy that gives you the level of cover you need at a price you can afford.

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