My Car Has Broken Down - What Should I Do?

Ellie Dyer-Brown, 4 months ago

3 min read

  • Car ownership

FixMyCar looks at what you should do to stay safe if your car breaks down.

There’s never a good time for your car to break down. Whether you're stuck by the roadside or on the drive outside your house, it’s always inconvenient and sometimes a little frightening. But there’s no need to panic. This guide explains exactly what to do in the event of a breakdown.


What to do when your car breaks down

Breaking down on a motorway

Breaking down on a smart motorway

Breaking down at home

What is a breakdown kit and why should you have one?

Towing a broken down car

Top tips for avoiding a breakdown

What to do when your car breaks down

Here are the basic steps to follow when your car fails.

  • Focus on staying calm and always be mindful of other road users.

  • If possible, move your vehicle off the road into a safe place (such as a layby or the hard shoulder).

  • Switch on your hazard lights.

  • Exit the car using the left-hand door (away from the road). Wear a hi-vis vest if you have one.

  • If you’re not on a motorway, place your warning triangle 45 metres (about 60 paces) behind your vehicle.

  • Keep your sidelights switched on if visibility is poor.

  • Call your breakdown cover provider.

A broken down car with a warning triangle placed on the road in front of it.

If you can’t get your car to a safe place

Your car might die before you can reach the hard shoulder. In this situation, the Highway Code states that you should stay in the vehicle with your seatbelt on. Switch your hazard warning lights on, then call emergency services (999) for assistance.

What to do if you’ve broken down on a motorway

1. Try to exit the motorway

Leave the motorway at the nearest exit or pull into a service station. Failing that, the next best thing is to pull into the hard shoulder and stop as far to the left as possible. Make sure your wheels are also turned to the left.

2. Get out of your car safely

Switch your hazard lights on; if it’s dark, keep your sidelights on, too. Exit the car using the left-hand door, wearing hi-vis jackets if you have them. Then, climb over the safety barriers to protect yourself from moving traffic and wait for rescue.

3. Contact a breakdown recovery service

If you have breakdown cover, now is the time to call your provider. You’ll need to tell them your policy number and as much information as possible about your location. 

Even if you don’t have cover, you still have a few options. 

  • A local garage might be able to send someone to fix your car or tow it in for repairs. However, they often charge high call-out fees for breakdowns.

  • Emergency motorway recovery will get you off the motorway or A road and leave you in a safe place. Use the emergency telephones along the side of the road to call for help. This option is expensive and could cost over £150, but the initial phone call is free.

  • A breakdown cover provider can still help even if you don’t have an existing policy. Most companies offer emergency cover that you can use in this situation, but you should always read the terms of the policy first because regular cover doesn’t usually kick in for 24 hours.

This guide discusses everything you need to know about breakdown cover.

What to do if you’ve broken down on a smart motorway

Smart motorways don’t have hard shoulders. Here’s what to do if you break down on one.

Red X signs above a smart motorway

1. Try to leave the motorway

Turn your hazard lights on, move into the left-hand lane and exit the motorway as soon as possible. The ideal place to exit is in an emergency refuge area, which you can reach by following the orange SOS signs. 

2. Exit your car safely

If it’s safe to do so, exit through the left side doors, wearing high-visibility clothing if you have it. Leave your hazard lights on, and if visibility is low, use your sidelights, too. If you can, climb over safety barriers to distance yourself from moving traffic.

3. Use the emergency phone service

Once you’ve pulled over and are out of the car, you must use the emergency telephone in the refuge area to report the incident, giving as much information as possible. 

Do not attempt repairs, use an emergency triangle, or stand between your car and passing vehicles.

It isn’t always possible to reach a safe place when your car has broken down. In this situation, move your vehicle into the left lane with the hazard lights on. If you reach the left lane and it’s safe to do so, you can exit the car on the left-hand side. Call 999 and wait behind the safety barrier.

Alternatively, if you’re stranded in a different lane, keep your seatbelt on, stay in the car, and call 999.

Learn more about smart motorways and how they work.

What to do if your car has broken down at home

If your car has broken down outside your house, the first thing to do is check for any obvious indications of why it isn’t working. For example, is the battery flat? This is something you might be able to fix at home with jump leads or a battery charger

Calling for help due to a broken down car

Here are the most common causes of breakdowns.

On the other hand, if you need expert repairs, check your breakdown policy to see if the cover includes 'home start'. Otherwise, you’ll either have to pay for your car to be towed to a garage or contact a mobile mechanic.

What is a breakdown kit and why should you have one?

The best way to deal with a breakdown, no matter where it happens, is to be prepared. Invest in a pre-made breakdown kit or design your own.

An emergency car kit.

You could include:

Towing a broken down car law UK

There are a few rules you should be aware of if you need to tow your car:

  • If you passed your test after January 1st 1997, and haven’t taken a specific car and trailer test, you can only tow trailers that weigh up to 3,500 kg maximum authorised mass (MAM - this means the weight of both the car and trailer combined).

  • However, if you passed your test before 1997, you can tow up to 8,250 kg MAM.

  • The car you are towing should have an ‘on tow’ sign on the back.

  • The broken down car must have its lights on if it is dark.

  • The broken down car should also be driven by a qualified driver.

For more information, check the government website.

Can you tow a car with rope?

If you don’t have a tow bar, you can use a rope or chain. The distance between the two cars shouldn’t exceed 4.5 metres, and if it’s more than 1.5 metres, the rope or chain must be visible to road users from both sides (for instance, by tying a high-visibility fabric around it).

Can you tow a car on the motorway?

You can only tow another car on the motorway if it broke down on the motorway.

What’s the maximum speed for towing a car?

Regardless of the speed limit, you must drive slowly and steadily when towing a car. The speed limit in areas with street lighting is 30 mph (unless indicated otherwise); on single carriageways, it’s 50 mph; and on dual carriageways and motorways, it’s 60 mph. However, these are limits, not targets.

Can you tow a car without an MOT?

Towing a car without a valid MOT is not permitted unless it is insured and you are taking it to a prearranged MOT test.

Top tips for avoiding a breakdown

Follow the steps below to prevent a breakdown or check out this guide for even more advice.

Woman checking car battery.

If your car is showing signs that it could be about to break down, it’s always best to get it checked by a trained professional – even if it's for something as simple as a loose connection.

If you found this guide helpful, you might also like:

Written by Ellie

Ellie Author Pic

Ellie is FixMyCar’s Content Writer. She has a BA in English literature from Durham University, a master’s degree in creative writing, and three years of experience writing in the automotive industry. She currently drives a Suzuki Swift.

Find Ellie on LinkedIn.