7 Things To Remember When Your Car Breaks Down

May 18, 2012


America is in the midst of graduation season, which can only mean one thing: high school graduates across the country are motoring around in their very first cars, taking their first road trips, and buying their first (and last) air-fresheners disguised as fuzzy pairs of dice.

But along with those joys comes another, less pleasant first: the very first breakdown. How will your teen driver perform in the face of adversity? The folks at AutoMD put together a quick checklist to help them through the rough patch, and we're going to share it with you, along with a suggestion of two of our own.

(Note: this list is directed at novices, but it really applies to drivers at every level of experience. Have a look. You might learn something.)

1. First things first: get your car off the road. Even when things go seriously wrong, moving vehicles don't usually stop working entirely, so hopefully, you'll have some time and momentum to get your car to the side of the road. (If not, turn on your hazard lights and skip to step 2; don't get out of the car while it's stranded in traffic, especially if you're stuck on a busy highway.) When you reach the side of the road, put the car in park, engage the emergency brake, and spin your steering wheel away from the road. That way, your car won't accidentally roll out into oncoming traffic. Turn on your hazard lights, too.

2. Call for help. According to the Pew Research Center, about 77% of American teens have cell phones, so odds are good that this won't be a problem. (For the remaining 23% of teens, parents might consider stowing a limited-function feature phone in the glove box, just for emergencies. Or you could purchase a roadside assistance device like OnStar FMV, which is now on sale for $99.)

3. Let other drivers know that you're in trouble. Hazard lights are a start, but they don't necessarily shout to the world that you're having car problems. (For example, you might've pulled over to take a call.) If you can get out of the car safely and if you have road flares available, place a couple of them about 50 feet behind your car. Raising the hood isn't a bad idea, either.

4. Stay with the car. For at least two reasons, it's usually best if you stay with your vehicle. First, if you've called AAA or another roadside service, they typically can't do anything to a vehicle without the driver present. And second, as we mentioned above, roadways are dangerous places for people on foot -- in fact, about 4,000 pedestrians are killed each year in the U.S. The situation is far more deadly when cars are flying by at 60 or 70 miles per hour.

5. Now probably isn't the time to take a blind stab at auto repair. If you've got some tinkering experience, you might be able to identify a loose battery cable, but if your problem is a flat tire and you've never changed one before, leave it be unless the situation becomes desperate. Changing tires can be tricky, even under ideal conditions -- and frankly, perched on the shoulder of a highway isn't what we'd call "ideal". If you do know how to change a tire, proceed with caution. In the best of all possible worlds, you'd wait until a police officer shows up, just to help slow down traffic.

6. Use common sense. Every breakdown is different, depending on where you are, what you're driving, the time of day, the underlying problem, and so on. For example, if you're on a quiet stretch of road and you know what's wrong -- say, for example, you ran out of gas and you're certain there's a gas station nearby -- it's probably okay to ignore item #4 and hoof it. Just exercise caution, and don't exit the car on the same side as traffic is flowing.

7. Be wary of strangers. Your parents probably told you that a thousand times when you were young, but it bears repeating. There are plenty of good Samaritans out there, eager to help folks in trouble. However, there are also a handful of bad eggs that can really spell trouble. If a stranger pulls over and offers help, it's probably best to remain in the car with the doors locked. Roll down the window a bit and tell them that help is on the way. Call the police if need be. Sorry if it seems that we've lost all faith in humanity, but if you've ever been to a cutthroat garage sale, your views are probably a little jaundiced, too. 

Got any other tips for folks experiencing their first breakdown? Drop us a line, or leave a note in the comments below.

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