Breaking down in your car: laws, rules and best practices

When your car breaks down, aside from calling roadside assistance, there are other legal obligations you must follow, alongside rules and best practices to help you remain safe until help arrives. Our handy guide will help you keep calm in the event of your car breaking down.

Caroline Ramsey 12 November 2020

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If you are unfortunate and your car breaks down during a journey, you may be unaware of what you are legally obligated to do, what the road rules are and how to remain safe until further help arrives in the form of roadside assistance. You need to make sure you are on the right side of the law when your car breaks down, as this can help to decrease the stress and anxiety of the situation.

We’ve created this handy guide of what you need to do during a breakdown, in order to remain legal and safe until you can get further assistance.

The first thing to do if you’re unsure what your legal obligations are when your car breaks down is to consult The Highway Code. Remember, there is a different Highway Code in Northern Ireland than in England, Scotland and Wales, so make sure you know the law for whichever country you’re driving in.

For the purposes of this guide, we are referring to The Highway Code for driving in England, Scotland and Wales.

Rule 274 of The Highway Code details what you are legally required to do when your car breaks down, in order to maintain your safety and the safety of all other road users.

  • If you can, get your car off the road – fast!
  • Put your hazard warning lights on
  • Wear a high-vis jacket, light-coloured clothing or reflective clothing at night
  • Put out red safety triangles on the road at least 147 feet or 45 meters behind your car unless you’re on the motorway
  • Make sure that you or anyone else doesn’t stand between your car and on-coming traffic
  • Try to keep your sidelights on if possible
  • Don’t stand where on-coming traffic can’t see your lights at night or during poor visibility
  • 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.

What to do if you break down on the motorway

The Highway Code rule 275 says your first priority should be to get your car off the motorway as quickly and safely as possible, by using the next exit or pull up at a service station. There are several guidelines to follow should you find yourself in the position where this is impossible.

  • At the first opportunity, you should pull over to the hard shoulder and turn your wheels to the left
  • If you can, ideally you would stop on the hard shoulder near an emergency telephone, Leave your car on the left-hand side and make sure any passengers do so too and remain behind the barrier of the hard shoulder for your safety
  • 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
  • You are responsible for the safety of your passengers including any children
  • Walk to the nearest emergency telephone on your side of the carriageway behind the barrier of the hard shoulder
  • After making the phone call on the emergency telephone, return to your car and 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.

How do I use the motorway emergency telephone?

Ideally, you would have pulled your car up onto the hard shoulder near the closest emergency telephone. If this isn’t possible, then once you have secured your vehicle, you will need to walk to the nearest emergency telephone on your side of the carriageway by following the arrows on the posts at the back of the hard shoulder.

When you are speaking to the operator, always ensure you face the road traffic; this is so that you can be heard against the noise of oncoming 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 children, other passengers or if you are a vulnerable motorist, which includes if you’re travelling alone or if you have a disability. Don’t worry, the operators are fully trained in dealing with emergencies, but it’s good to understand what information you may need to relay to them.

The emergency telephone is free of charge for all drivers on the motorway and it will immediately connect you directly to an operator. According to Rule 283 of The Highway Code, you should use these telephones to report a broken down vehicle, as opposed to a mobile, because they can locate your car much quicker. The same applies for reporting a traffic collision or a medical emergency.

However, if you do use your mobile, then make sure you can identify your location by reading the marker posts situated on the back of the barrier on the hard shoulder.

What do I do if I am travelling with children?

If you are travelling on the motorway with children or passengers, you will be held responsible for their safety whilst they are standing with you on the hard shoulder waiting for roadside rescue. Ensure that they understand the dangers of running and playing near a busy motorway with fast oncoming traffic and 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 do I do if I am travelling with animals?

It is unsafe to keep a pet animal with you when you’re standing beside your car on the hard shoulder of a motorway. However, The Highway Code isn’t completely heartless, should your animal have an emergency, then you are technically allowed to keep it with you on the hard shoulder, as long as it is under control and won’t pose a risk to your safety, should it take fright and run into oncoming traffic.

What should I do if my car is causing an obstruction?

According to The Highway Code’s rules 279 - 280, if you notice an obstruction on the motorway caused by your breakdown, you should never try to remove it yourself as, for obvious reasons, it is highly dangerous to walk onto a busy motorway. You should instead park your car safely at the next emergency telephone to notify the operator.

If your car or a part of your car is causing an obstruction on the motorway after it has broken down, you should aim to get it off the road as quickly as possible, ignoring any items that are left behind and pull up on the hard shoulder, unless you can’t turn off at the closest exit.

Instead, you should stop your car at the nearest emergency telephone and notify the operator of the dangerous obstacle that you saw. This will also apply if anything has fallen from your own vehicle or another vehicle.

What do I need when my car breaks down?

There are a number of useful items to always carry in your car that you can quickly access if you have a breakdown. Here are some of the most useful items that can keep you going until help arrives.

  • Important documents: You will need to quickly access your breakdown cover and insurance documents when you break down, so that you can contact them for roadside assistance. In most cases, the contact details for your breakdown cover service provider will be on the certificate. Try to keep these documents in the glove compartment of your car, alongside your driving licence and car insurance policy.
  • Red safety triangles: As previously mentioned, you should always carry a set of red safety triangles in your car to alert other road users that you’ve broken down. They are readily available at most petrol stations and garages as well as online shops. Remember not to place any on a motorway and to place them a minimum of 45 meters behind your car.
  • First aid kit: It’s always a good idea to have a vehicle first aid kit handy in your car, in case it breaks down. Make sure that it includes sterile cleansing wipes, nitrile powder-free gloves, a Revive-Aid resuscitation face shield, a pair of scissors, waterproof plasters and an assortment of dressings and bandages.
  • High Vis Jacket: It’s advisable to keep a high vis., reflective jacket or light-coloured clothing in your car, so that you can be easily spotted when you’re standing near your car waiting for roadside assistance.

For a more comprehensive list of items read our article What to keep in your car in case your vehicle breaks down.

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