What should you do if your car breaks down on a busy highway?

When you’re driving and your car decides to blow a tyre, make strange clunking noises, overheat or flash all kinds of warning lights, it’s never good news. But when it chooses to do these things on a major highway, arterial road or jam-packed freeway, get ready for your stress levels to be put to the test.

Having your vehicle conk out on a quiet suburban street is one thing; having it happen on a busy road as heavy traffic zooms past creates a whole new level of danger and challenges.

Knowing what to do in these situations can mean the difference between life and death – for you, your car’s occupants and anyone else using the road, including those attempting to render you assistance.

Prevention is the key

A breakdown can happen for many reasons but according to the AA, the 4 most common causes of vehicle failure on the roads are:

Flat (or faulty) battery 

Car batteries have a finite life span and eventually give up the ghost, often under the least convenient circumstances. If you drive only short distances, your engine may not have enough time to properly recharge the battery. Bad clamp connections and corroded terminals are also common issues with batteries.

Proactively testing your car battery twice a year will help reduce the chances of its failure — your local mechanic may offer a simple battery test.

Flat (or damaged) tyres 

Regularly check the pressure and tread of your tyres, avoid debris on the road and it pays not to wait until your tyres are bald before you consider buying new ones. If they’re bald, you’re gambling with your safety (and the police can fine you).

Alternator faults 

If your alternator is failing, you’ll usually get a red warning light on the dashboard. Quick loss of battery power (e.g. dimming headlights) and rising engine temperatures are also symptoms that you may have alternator issues. As well as having regular services to get your alternator checked, if the red warning light appears, it’s well worth getting your alternator checked as soon as possible.

Fuel management 

It’s amazing how many people put the wrong fuel in their cars. There are also far too many drivers playing the ‘just a bit further’ game when their petrol gauge is hovering perilously near empty. Running out of fuel at peak hour on the expressway is no fun for you or anyone sharing the road with you –  and it’s totally preventable.[i]

The best antidote to breakdowns is proper maintenance: if vehicle fluid levels are topped up, batteries and tyres are kept in good nick and the car receives regular servicing by a professional, your rate of breakdowns will be greatly reduced. You should always carry an emergency kit in your car as well.

When a highway breakdown happens to you


Having the optimal reaction to a breakdown on a busy road can keep you (and others) safe, reduce inconvenience to other motorists and speed up the process of getting assistance. If your car has an obvious problem, look for an emergency lane to pull into so you can stop more safely. If there’s no alternative, pull over onto the hard shoulder, parking as far to the left as safely possible.

If your car has slowed well below the speed of other traffic, turn on your hazard lights to warn other drivers. When stopped, put the parking brake on and point your wheels away from the road so your car won’t roll into traffic if it’s struck from behind. In poor light, leave your headlights (and/or dome light) on to increase visibility.

Who to call if you break down

If circumstances permit, stop near an emergency roadside telephone. These are spaced along many freeways and connect you directly to an operator who knows your location and can assist you further. If this isn’t possible, use your mobile phone to seek help – but wait until you’re fully stopped safely off the side of the road and as far away from traffic as possible.[ii]

Who you decide to ring for help during a breakdown depends on your location and the situation. In a dire emergency, ring 000 immediately. If your predicament is the result of an accident, you may need to call the police, tow trucks and your insurance company. If you have Roadside Assistance, they are able to with standard breakdown difficulties.

Many insurers offer Roadside Assistance cover that provides on-the-spot help for problems like faulty batteries, flat tyres, minor roadside repairs and towing. Your state automobile association can provide a similar service. Roadside Assistance is a worthwhile investment that can provide extra peace of mind.

To exit or not to exit the vehicle 

If you’ve managed to park in a reasonably safe spot well out of the traffic, your best bet is to stay inside the vehicle with your seatbelt fastened and your doors and windows locked until the help you’ve called arrives. Ask yourself if there is any solid reason to leave the vehicle. If you do decide to get out, only do so if it’s safe and you have checked carefully for oncoming traffic.

If you have a high visibility vest in your car (which is a worthwhile investment), put it on. If possible, exit from the passenger (non-traffic) side. If it’s not safe to exit, stay put. Never try to cross a busy road on foot – it’s not worth the risk.

If you have left the vehicle, make sure you stand behind any safety barriers and as far away from the road as possible. Never stand or move between cars, behind cars or anywhere near moving traffic on a busy motorway – approaching drivers may be going 100 kph, which means they’ll have very little time to react to the sudden appearance of your breakdown situation.[iii]


[i] https://www.smartfleetaustralia.com.au/news/5-common-issues-can-cause-breakdown

[ii] https://practicalmotoring.com.au/car-advice/how-to-stay-safe-if-you-breakdown-on-the-highway/

[iii] https://www.vicroads.vic.gov.au/traffic-and-road-use/traffic-management/incident-response-service

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