How to help someone whose car has broken down

5 minutes

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Would you know what to do if a friend or family member broke down and called you for help?  

Motoring writer Leon Poultney asked the experts what to do if you get the call. 

  • How to locate a loved one when they've broken down
  • Why reading up on the car is a must
  • How to prepare your car for any possibility

It's important to get all the information you need before attempting to repair someone else's car

How to deal with a breakdown call

Picture the scene: you've just settled down in front of your favourite TV show with a nice cup of tea, and the phone rings – it's your beloved teenage offspring, and their hatchback has broken down at the side of a busy road.

1. First of all, take a deep breath

If you stay calm, it will help the person on the other end of the line keep their cool as well. Then, tell them to make sure their car is on the hard shoulder or as far off the road as possible, with front wheels turned to the left to stop it rolling into traffic.


2. Tell them to put on appropriate clothing for the weather and situation

High visibility and warm clothing are part of our emergency pack contents list, which you can see in full further down this article.

'Before they get out of the vehicle, tell them to put on reflective clothing, especially if it's dark or wet,' says Richard Gladman, head of driving and riding standards at IAM RoadSmart (@IAMRoadSmart).

You should also make sure they've turned the car hazard lights on and, if possible, sidelights.


3. Next, make sure that the driver and passengers get out of the car and away from the road as quickly as possible

Tell them to safely place a warning triangle somewhere visible on the road, at least 45 metres in the direction of oncoming traffic. Tell them to take great care when placing and retrieving the warning triangle, and remember to never use them on motorways. 

'Everyone in a broken-down car should get out through doors on the left-hand side at the side of the road and stand well clear of traffic, behind a safety barrier if possible,' says Peter Rodger, the chief examiner of the Institute of Advanced Motorists


4. Pinpoint exactly where the broken down car is located

It helps if the caller has a working smartphone with GPS functionality. If they haven't, quiz them on the last junction they passed to get a rough idea of their whereabouts.

If they're driving in an area they're unfamiliar with, especially one that has patchy signal, they should download the local area map onto their phone first. That way, they can use GPS even if they lose data. 

If they can't get reception, tell them to look for markers at the side of a motorway, or try and locate the nearest safe place to find out, such as a shop, service station or business. 

'Tell the person who has broken down never to walk across a motorway or dual carriageway to get to an emergency phone.'


5. Contact the emergency services

If there is an emergency phone on the same side of the road as the caller, tell them to use this to contact the emergency services, as they can use it to pinpoint your location.

Naturally, having breakdown cover information in the car will help, while car insurance documentation may be required if the vehicle is damaged.


Pro tips on avoiding a breakdown

No one in the family has broken down before? Lucky you! But never say never. Thankfully for any driver on the road, there are actions that can be taken to lessen the likelihood of a breakdown.


1.Read up on their vehicle, and make them do it too

As cars become more complex, owner knowledge of maintenance and general upkeep diminishes,' says Nick Francis. Former Fleet Street motoring editor. 

'Many drivers don't carry items such as spare water, oil, bulbs and fuses, even though they are often essential. Make sure these are in their car and that they learn how to fit them.

'However, if it's not safe to carry out the job, leave it to the breakdown experts.


2. Keep an eye on the fuel gauge

'However unlikely running out of fuel might sound, it's the cause of one in 20 breakdowns on the motorway network,' says Dominic Tobin, editor of (@buy_a_car). 

Jim O' Sullivan, the chief executive of Highways England, has said that motorists who try to eke the most out of a tank and drive with the low fuel warning light on are irresponsible.

'Pinching the pennies is one thing but conking out on the hard shoulder really isn't worth the savings,' Tobin says.


3. Maintain the car's battery life

'Car batteries and alternators can take a beating in the winter. Adverse weather calls for lights, heating and ventilation to be running full blast and the drop in temperature can actually affect the battery chemistry,' says Will Dron (@wdron), editor at Sunday Times'

'It's a good idea to check the health of a car's battery and ensure it can cope with sat navs, smartphones and other devices that may need charging. The extra strain on a battery could lead to a breakdown.'

Digital battery testers, which connect directly to the terminals, can be bought for between £20-£100. Alternatively, garages will perform a battery test for a fee.


Be prepared for any possibility on the road

Whatever you do to avoid them, breakdowns will still happen. Thankfully, there are ways to prepare for long waits at the side of the road. 

'Try to pack an emergency bag with the basics – a drink, some snacks and items to keep passengers warm and safe,' says Richard Gladman. 

This emergency pack should contain:

  • A high-visibility vest or coat
  • An empty fuel can, so they can make a quick trip to a petrol station
  • A torch or lamp with plenty of batteries
  • Warm clothes 

There are also specific breakdown kits, which include items such as towing ropes, torches, tyre inflation devices and hazard warning triangles. 

'Many new cars come with a warning triangle in the boot, but manufacturers are increasingly replacing spare wheels with tyre repair kits, which spray foam into punctured tyres to seal them up, so you can drive to a garage and get them replaced,' says Dominic Tobin.

'But these only work for small punctures. If a tyre gets sliced open or has a blow-out, then the car's occupants could be left waiting to be recovered, so it's handy to know exactly what is in the car.'

Before driving, make sure  the vehicle is fit for the journey ahead, pack some important items and keep essential information handy. If the worst happens, remain calm, follow the simple steps above and call for help as soon as everyone is in a safe location. 

Do you have any top breakdown tips? Or perhaps you've had an experience we could all learn from. Share your story with us on Twitter or Facebook, we'd love to hear from you.

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