Written By: Kristin Brocoff Kristinsblog@carmd.com
When I was first asked by the CarMD blog editor to write about Safety: What to do if your car breaks down, and what things you should keep in your car at all times, I thought “there has to be somebody better to write this.” After all, in my 24 years of driving (oh heck, now I’ve given away my age), I had never actually broken down in the middle of the road, unless you count the time my husband ran out of gas on a freeway exit ramp.
And then it happened! Our family got a doozy of a blowout on our boat trailer 100 miles from nowhere during our end-of-summer road trip. And I – the gal, who works in the automotive industry; the one who is prepared for everything – became just another stranded driver. Since it can happen to anyone at any time, here are some suggestions for how to stay safe when troublesome roadside scenarios strike:
- My car is overheating! Now What? – Be sure to watch your car’s temperature gauge, especially when you’re going up steep grades. If it’s starts running hot or flashes a temperature warning it may help to turn on your car’s heater. Blast that heater on high. It may just do the trick to prevent overheating. If that doesn’t work, pull over to a safe, flat spot on the right side of the road. There, you can check the antifreeze level and add more to the reserve tank if it’s low. Check your service manual to see where it goes and how to measure. If you don’t have antifreeze, a half-cup of water may do the trick. If that doesn’t work either, you can try checking to make sure the overflow hose that carries antifreeze from the radiator is attached and not clogged. It’s usually connected with a T-shaped clamp. If you’re still having problems, it’s best to get to a service station or repair shop, even if you have to inch along with the heater and the emergency blinker lights on. Whether it’s a failing water pump, low coolants or other problem, you’ll need to have it addressed soon. Being prepared and paying attention to your car’s temperature warning signs could mean the difference between getting to the repair shop or gas station safely, and having to pay for a costly tow.
- I’ve got a flat tire! What do I do? – If you’re lucky, you’ll notice a pull or see a bulge in the tire and give yourself a chance to slow down to avoid a major, highway-speed blowout. That way, you can signal and start to gradually pull to a safe, flat location on the side of the road. Be sure to put your car in park and put up the hood to let other motorists know you’ve got a problem. If it’s dark or you’re in a location that’s not very visible, use flares as well. If you don’t think you’ll be able to change the tire at NASCAR speed and have any worries about extreme heat or cold, consider keeping your vehicle running with kids and pets inside. I’d like to note that it’s a good idea to teach kids about safety as well. I was quite impressed with how my 11-year-old son sprung into action like Man Versus Wild by gathering water and snacks for his younger sister, and finding a safe, shady spot away from the highway to wait. If you’re prepared, you’ll have at least one full-size spare tire, a jack and a lug wrench that actually fits the lug nuts on your tires. Having two spare tires is even better – especially if you’re pulling a trailer – which sometimes gets dual blow-outs. In our family’s recent blowout we thought we were prepared, but realized you need a much larger jack and lug wrench for boat tires versus truck tires. If you use the wrong sized lug wrench, you can risk stripping the lug nuts or bending/breaking the wrench (like we did!). If you have the right tools, you can use the flat end of the lug wrench to pry the hubcap/wheel cover off. Then jack up the vehicle, making sure to place the jack where your vehicle’s service manual recommends. Then, loosen each of the lug nuts and put them somewhere safe where they won’t roll away or get picked up and played with by kids or pets (like ours did). Roll the spare tire over and lift it onto the vehicle. Put the lug nuts back on, tighten them and lower the vehicle to the ground. If you have a small spare or see any major damage to the wheel well or other parts of the car, it’s best to drive to the closest service station or repair shop. If you run into any problems attempting to change the tire (like we did), or simply don’t want to try it yourself, call for roadside assistance and be sure to have your passengers wait in a safe location out of the elements. If you end up having to have your tire changed by a professional with multi-sized jacks and lug wrenches (like we did), be sure to save the tire and the receipt. When you get home you can check for recalls on the tire, especially if you had low mileage and didn’t hit any debris to cause the flat. Many insurance and roadside service companies will reimburse you for the cost, and sometimes you’ll even find a tire is covered by recall or warranty.
- My car just stalled in the middle of the road! What’s next? Cars usually give you at least a little warning before they simply stall, but horror stories can happen. If you have any suspicion your car might stall – it’s running rough, sputtering, shows a dashboard warning light, or is very low on gas, you should drive in the right lane and make your way to a safe turnout or freeway exit. If it happens in traffic and you can get the car started, put on your four-way emergency flashers and safely get to a shoulder. If you are simply stuck, be sure to also put up the hood of your car to alert other drivers that you have a problem. If there isn’t a lot of traffic, you may be able to get a police officer or larger vehicle to put on their emergency lights behind you and help push you to the side of the road with your car in neutral. Remember that if the engine is dead, you will not have power steering or power brakes. If that’s not possible or you are in a dangerous area, don’t hesitate to call local law enforcement or 911 for help. If you have a cell phone, it’s a good idea to have your roadside service company on speed dial. If you do not have a cell phone, law enforcement officials recommend that you put a sign in your window asking for the police to be called. After you have put up the hood, you should get back into the car and keep the doors locked until help comes, especially if you are in a desolate or unsafe area. Sadly, some people prey on stranded motorists. At no time should you exit your car unless you feel your safety is in jeopardy. For instance, if you have high-speed traffic coming fast behind you, your car is smoking or on fire, or you are stalled on a railroad track … then exiting the vehicle is fair game.
While you can’t prevent every type of problem, paying attention to your vehicle’s (and trailer’s) warning signs – and following a regular preventative maintenance program – can help minimize the odds you’ll break down on the road. CarMD handheld tester owners should run regular quick-checks on their vehicles, and conduct regular visual inspections as well. If you get a yellow light on the CarMD product, it can indicate possible trouble down the road. If you see, hear or smell something that just doesn’t seem right, have it looked at. You know your vehicle better than anyone else. That sixth sense is usually right. If my husband would have listened to his little voice telling him our trailer tires looked a little lopsided like the heat had taken their toll on them for one too many summers, we may have avoided our little adventure.
Aside from remembering to keep your cool, here are some safety items you should always have with you in the car:
- A blanket to sit on or cover up with (be sure to set up away from your vehicle and traffic)
- Extra water (for drinking and overheating)
- Full-sized spare tire (or two), jack and lug wrench – make sure they fit and work
- Cell phone
- Paper and pen
Kristin Brocoff, marketing manager at CarMD.com Corp, helped develop the CarMD® Vehicle Health System. She has over 16 years of experience in marketing and public relations, including a decade in the automotive aftermarket. She serves as a member of the AskPatty.com female friendly advisory panel and the Car Care Council Women’s Board. Kristin is committed to empowering drivers – women in particular – to make smart decisions about car maintenance. She has appeared on regional and national TV and radio programs, including Fox News, Extra! TV, The Motorman Show, and more. Kristin currently resides in Las Vegas, and is a full-time working mom to two active kids and a dog.
Questions about my blog? Comment here or email me at Kristinsblog@CarMD.com