Broken Down Car: What Should I Do, What Are the Rules?

When your car breaks down, you should pull over on the left of the road, switch on your hazard warning lights, and follow the rules to stay safe until help arrives. If you break down on a motorway there are extra rules you need to observe.

Caroline Ramsey, Rhiannon Philps Published on 18 October 2018. Last updated on 10 February 2021.
Broken Down Car: What Should I Do, What Are the Rules?

If you are unfortunate and your car breaks down during a journey, you may be unaware of what you legally need to do, what the road rules are and how to remain safe until further help arrives.

Even if you look after your car and make sure it’s in tip-top condition, there is still a risk that you could break down on your travels.

This guide will help show you what you need to do if your car has broken down, whether it’s on a motorway or another road, in order to remain legal and safe until you can get further assistance.

What should I do if my car breaks down on the road?

Whether you break down in the middle of a city, on a remote country lane, on a busy A road or a quieter B road, there are some basic rules you should follow while you wait to be rescued:

  • If you can, get your car off the road or pull over to the left as far as possible.
  • Put your hazard warning lights on.
  • If your car is safely parked off-road and it’s not causing an obstruction, it may be safer to wait for help in your car on quieter roads.
  • If you’re on a busy road, it will usually be safer to wait outside your car. Exit your car through the door furthest away from the traffic.
  • Wear a high vis jacket, light-coloured clothing or reflective clothing so other drivers can see you.
  • If it is safe to do so, put out a red warning triangle on the road at least 45 metres behind your car, unless you’re on the motorway.
  • Don’t stand between your car and oncoming traffic, and don’t block your car lights from other drivers.
  • Try to keep your sidelights on if it’s dark or there’s poor visibility.

The aim of these rules is to keep you and other road users safe, but sometimes you may need to take extra precautions. For example, if you break down on a major A road, it would be safer to follow the motorway rules because of the increased risk from other vehicles.

When you are safe, you can call your breakdown provider for assistance. If you don’t have breakdown cover, you can either take out a policy on the spot or call a local garage for help.

What to do if you break down on the motorway

Motorways can be dangerous places to break down. If possible, you should always try to leave the motorway at the next exit or pull over into a lay-by, but you won’t always be able to do this. To help you stay safe until you get help, follow these additional motorway breakdown rules:

  • If you can’t leave the motorway, pull over to the hard shoulder and turn your wheels to the left.
  • If you can, stop near an emergency telephone.
  • Leave your car through the left-hand door and make sure any passengers do so too.
  • Stay behind the barrier of the hard shoulder.
  • Leave any animals travelling with you inside the car.
  • Never try to put a red safety triangle on the motorway.
  • Do not try to fix your car yourself.
  • Don’t try to remove anything that may be causing an obstruction on the road. Wait for emergency help to arrive when it can be removed safely.
  • Call your breakdown provider on your mobile or walk to the nearest emergency telephone on your side of the carriageway behind the barrier of the hard shoulder.
  • After making the phone call, wait for assistance. Stand well away from the hard shoulder and the carriageway.
  • If you feel unsafe from another person, then make sure you return to your vehicle by a left-hand door and lock all of the doors. Leave your vehicle again as soon as you feel it is safe to do so.

If you have a disability that makes it hard to do any of these things, you should stay in your vehicle and turn on your hazard warning lights. You can then display a “Help” pennant, if you have one, and phone for help if you have a mobile phone.

What if I can’t get to the hard shoulder?

If you can’t get to the hard shoulder and your car stops in the middle of a live motorway lane, keep your seatbelts on, switch on your hazard warning lights and call 999. Stay in your vehicle unless you are certain it is safe to leave.

What should I do if I break down on a smart motorway?

On a smart motorway there is no hard shoulder to pull onto if your car has broken down. So, if you can’t leave the motorway completely, on a smart motorway you should instead try to make it to an emergency refuge area (ERA).

These emergency areas are regularly spaced out along smart motorways and are signalled by blue signs with an orange SOS symbol.

Once there, you should turn on your car’s hazard warning lights (if they’re not on already), exit your vehicle on the left-hand side and use the SOS telephone to call Highways England.

If you can’t make it to an emergency area, pull up as close to the left-hand side of the road as possible, call 999 for help and follow the usual motorway guidance explained above.

How do I use the motorway emergency telephone?

The emergency telephone is free to use. It will immediately connect you directly to an operator and give them your location.

To find the nearest telephone, follow the arrows on the posts at the back of the hard shoulder. The posts will also have signs that you can use to identify your location if you use your mobile phone to call for help.

When you are speaking to the operator, always ensure you face the road traffic. Make sure to tell them the full details of your car, vehicle registration, model and make, as well as your full name and a mobile contact number.

You also need to tell the operator if you’re travelling with pets, children, or other passengers or if you are a vulnerable motorist, which includes if you’re travelling alone, are pregnant, or if you have a disability.

Contacting your breakdown provider

Once you are safe and ready to contact your breakdown provider, you will need to have certain information to hand to make sure you can receive assistance as fast as possible. You can call your provider by phone, or some providers will allow you to report your breakdown online.

To help you, your breakdown provider will need to know:

  • Your name and other details about you and your policy.
  • Details about your car and what has happened.
  • Your location. If you’re on a motorway, marker posts can help you to identify your exact location.
  • Any special circumstances, for example if you/your passengers are vulnerable or if you have children or animals.

If you have broken down on a smart motorway or a standard motorway, because of the additional risk, your breakdown provider will work with the Highways Agency to ensure you are recovered safely.

What should I do if I am travelling with children?

If you are travelling on the motorway with children, you are responsible for their safety and for keeping them under control. Ensure that they stay well away from the carriageway and the hard shoulder; you should be standing behind the barrier of the hard shoulder for your safety.

What should I do if I break down with an animal?

For safety reasons you have to leave animals in the car if you break down. In an emergency you can take your pet out of the car, but make sure you keep them by your side and that they are fully under control.

Do you get free recovery if you breakdown during roadworks?

If you break down in the middle of a section of roadworks, you may be able to get free recovery to reduce the risk of delays and accidents. There will be signs telling you as you enter a roadworks zone if they provide free recovery, and then signs telling you when the free recovery section ends.

Free recovery does not replace breakdown cover. It simply means your broken down vehicle will be moved free of charge to a nearby safe place, out of the way of the roadworks but not to a garage or another destination. Once you are clear of the roadworks, you will have to arrange for assistance from your own breakdown provider.

>> COMPARE: Breakdown cover

What do I need if my car breaks down?

There are a number of useful items to always carry in your car to help you if you have a breakdown including:

  • Breakdown cover documents and contact details.
  • Red warning triangle.
  • High vis jacket.
  • First aid kit.
  • Mobile phone.

>> MORE: Essential kit to keep in your car in case of breakdown
If you want further information about what you should do if you break down, take a look at the Highway Code. Rule 274 covers standard breakdowns and rules 275-278 cover breakdowns on motorways.

About the authors:

Well-established content creator who specialises in the personal finance industry. More than a decade of working in editorial teams, she offers highly tailored content covering a number of topics. Read more

Rhiannon is a financial writer for NerdWallet, with a particular interest in personal finance and insurance guides for consumers. Read more

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