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A Trip Gone Wrong: Summer Breakdown on the Road

by Penny M. Hagerman

Vacationing by car can be a wonderful experience. There is nothing better than sitting back, enjoying the scenery and stopping to explore the sights close up. But when the heat kicks in and your car kicks out, being informed and prepared can make all the difference between the trip of your dreams and your worst nightmare!

Before You Go

According to AAA, about 90 percent of Americans vacation by personal vehicle. Preparing your car ahead of time can go a long way toward ensuring your trip goes smoothly.

Have a mechanic check your car to make sure it is road worthy in the blazing summer sun. Then prepare ahead of time with items you'll need in case of a breakdown. Stockpile objects such as drinking water, a flashlight, gloves and a first-aid kit in your car. This ensures against dehydration and helps everyone make the most of time spent waiting for help to arrive, or for your vehicle to be repaired. Also take items such as a jack, lug wrench, jumper cables, flares and reflectors so you can make any minor repairs safely yourself—and save time and money.

Don't forget important documents such as proof of insurance, vehicle registration and a list of emergency contact numbers. These items may prove useful for vehicle documentation, or when calling for help.

Last but not least, make sure you have a fully-charged cellular phone. This will prove invaluable if you need to place that call for help.

Health and safety should remain your first concerns when traveling in the summer heat—and these require awareness and planning. So prepare for the inevitable…and hope for the best!

Dealing with a Breakdown

You're driving along mindlessly, gauging the miles to your next rest stop and breaking up the kids' fights in the backseat, when suddenly your car's temperature indicator skyrockets and the warning light comes on. Or, you hear a noise and notice the car's ride has suddenly become very bumpy. Just what you need…more delays and car trouble, on top of everything else! Now what are you going to do?

The average American spends more than $7,000 on vehicle-related expenses for every 15,000 driving miles, according to AAA. Your summer vacation is NOT the time to have to face this kind of financial pressure.

If you do find yourself in a breakdown situation, follow these steps to safely deal with the situation and get back on the road as quickly as possible.

  • With safety uppermost in your mind, first proceed with caution—but don't panic. Then signal, slow down gradually and move your car off the road. Navigate carefully to the right shoulder, making no sudden movements and braking as little as possible. (You may need the car's momentum to get you to safety.) Pull as far onto the side of the road as you can, away from oncoming traffic but also on level ground, in case you need to change a tire or get under your car to make repairs. If your car is inoperable and you cannot move it from the road, turn on your emergency indicators (or "flashers") and exit the vehicle very carefully on the side closest to the edge of the road. Do not risk personal injury by attempting to push it to safety! 
  • Once your car is off the road, follow the directions above and turn on your emergency indicators to alert other drivers and make your presence known. Then get out of your vehicle on the passenger side. Do not attempt to exit the car on the driver's side, as this can be very dangerous with other vehicles coming up from behind. If other family members choose to exit the vehicle, make sure they do the same to avoid injury, and possibly even death.
  • Here's where that advance preparation comes in handy! Find those reflectors you packed in the trunk of your car, and place them behind your vehicle to direct oncoming traffic away from the scene. Put one reflector 10 feet behind the left side of your car, another 100 feet directly behind the mid-section, and a third 100 feet behind the car's right side. Then move your family to safety away from the vehicle to avoid risk of injury. Do not stand near your car.
  • Now, take a look around you. Are there any distinguishing landmarks? What about street signs? If you are on or near a highway, can you see a mile marker or exit sign? Make note of anything near your location that might help authorities or your auto club find you. Also, stay alert and pay attention to your surroundings. Watch for law enforcement officers, who can summon help.
  • If you can safely make repairs yourself, such as changing a flat tire or adding water to the radiator, do so. But take every precaution and make sure you and your family are safe first. If you cannot repair the damage and your car needs to be towed to a repair facility, now is the time to use your cell phone to call for help. Pull out that auto membership card, call the number on the back and explain your situation. Then find out how long it will take for help to arrive. Otherwise, call your local authorities, explain your predicament, and request that they send a tow truck. If you don't have a cell phone and you must walk to get help, keep everyone together, out of the path of oncoming traffic. (And take along that water you packed to avoid dehydration.) Don't accept help from a stranger, unless you have no other recourse. Finally, never leave friends or family members inside the vehicle with the engine running, as this can result in carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • When help arrives, ask your rescuer for valid company identification. Make sure you understand any applicable fees or charges, and ask for verification in writing.

Making Memories

No one enjoys the time, inconvenience or expense involved in a car breakdown—especially when vacationing with the family and just having fun. Make sure your trip goes right by becoming informed, planning ahead and preparing for the inevitable. Then save your money for other things…like making memories!

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