When Good Cars Go Bad: Emergency Roadside Primer


So you're driving down the road in your car, minding your own business, when suddenly a warning light illuminates on the dash. What's that little red light mean? You have no idea. Hmm, maybe if you don't pay any attention to it, it will go away. Nope. Uh oh. Now your car starts making strange noises. You think happy thoughts and turn up the radio to drown out the noises. That's better. Oops. Now your whole car just acted like a dinosaur and died. Time to utter some well-chosen swear words as you pull off the road...

You can try and blame roadside emergencies on a whole FBI conspiracy plot if you like (heaven knows, we do), but more often than not, they are due to a major disregard of routine maintenance. Giving your car some TLC is the surest way to avoid being DOA.

Of course, there are always those unlikely scenarios where no matter what you do, your car will still suffer some sort of problem while on the road. When this happens, you need to be prepared. This is particularly true for those of you whose idea of extensive car maintenance is swapping out the mushroom air freshener for a new pine tree one...

This article is composed of two parts: a list of items to have for roadside emergencies followed by a discussion of emergency roadside situations and what to do about them.

Emergency Roadside Preparation

If your car flat lines while you are driving it, you need to be prepared for as many different situations as possible. Following are suggestions on what to have in your car. Some are more critical than others.

Cell phone: This is the most useful item you can have in your car. With it, you can call for a tow truck, or even dial "911" if there has been an accident. The only problem is when you car or truck breaks down in an area that does not have cell-phone service.

Flashlight: It's not sunny 24 hours a day, you know. A flashlight is a key item to have in your car. Make sure to check the condition of its batteries on a regular basis.

Owner's manual: An owner's manual can help you determine what's wrong with your car. It will also have other useful information, such as jack-up points, tire pressure information, and fluid capacities.

Tire pressure gauge: You'll need one of these to properly maintain the air pressure in your car's tires.

Accident and insurance information: If you have been in an accident before, you know how hard it is to keep a level head. Make sure all of your registration, insurance and accident information is organized and easy to find.

Toolkit: A basic toolkit might help you fix a problem that would otherwise leave your car stranded. One example would be a loose battery cable. Having a screwdriver or a wrench will get you out of that situation in no time. The older your car is, the more likely a tool kit will come in handy.

Can of tire sealant: Even if your car has a spare tire, a can of tire sealant is a good item to have. Tire sealant comes in a can. Spraying the can's contents into the tire not only temporarily fixes the flat, but it inflates the tire, too.

Flares or warning triangle: If your car is broken down along the side of the road, you want to make sure other motorists can see you. A triangle is usually preferable to flares because it is passive (i.e., it doesn't burn out). If you can, use both!

Rags: Rags will be useful to wipe up fluids or to clean grime off your hands.

Jack and tire iron: Every car should have these. Use them to change a flat tire.

Gloves: Gloves are needed to protect your hands from hot components inside the engine bay or underneath the car. They also keep your hands clean.

Extra oil and coolant: Carrying some spare bottles of engine oil and radiator coolant is always a good idea.

Jumper cables: Even if your car doesn't break down, you might need these to help somebody else.

Fire extinguisher: This would be for one of those "what if" situations, as in "what if" your car catches fire. The main point of having a fire extinguisher is preventing a minor fire (like an engine fire) from spreading to engulf the entire car.

Blanket: A blanket is a must during the wintertime. You can also lay it on the ground if you need to lie down on the pavement to fix something on your car.

Bottled water and sealed food: Granola bars and sports nutrition bars are good items to have in case you get stranded for a long period of time.

Spare accessory belts: Carry new accessory belts. You can also carry your car's old belts assuming they are in fair condition. Spare belts are critical to have on long trips. If your car breaks down in no-man's land, small repair shops or gas stations might not have the proper-sized belts for your vehicle.

Emergency Roadside Situations

OK, so you've got your car packed with all the equipment you'll ever need. Now you need to know what to do if and when your car does break down.

Situation number one: You hear a loud bang and the car suddenly becomes unstable; you notice how the car wants to continually pull in one direction. What just happened? Most likely, a tire blowout or a flat tire. A tire blowout means the tire suffered a catastrophic structural failure. A flat tire happens when a car runs over road debris, causing it to slowly lose air. Can you keep driving? It is definitely not a good idea to keep going on a blown tire. A blown tire, especially if it's a front tire, makes a car very unstable, meaning that braking and handling abilities are greatly reduced. Braking effectiveness is severely reduced, as is the car's handling. Driving on a blown tire will soon cause the tire to come off the wheel completely, meaning that the wheel will be in contact with the ground. If you have ever watched a car chase on "Cops" before, you know this is not a good thing.What to do: Pull off the road as soon as safely possible. Inspect the blown tire. If it is wasted, replace it with the spare. If it is just flat, you can replace it with the spare tire or use a can of tire sealant. For more information on flat tires, check out Flat Tire Hell.

Situation number two: Electrical system warning light illuminates. What just happened? There could be a problem with the charging system, such as a tossed drive belt for the alternator. Can you keep driving? Yes, as long as the car keeps running. Be aware that the car might not run for much longer since the battery is being drained with little or no chance of a recharge. Some cars have gauges that show the status of the electrical system. What to do: A faulty alternator means the battery isn't getting recharged. The smart plan would be to continue driving to the closest dealer or repair facility. If you stop, you might not be able to start the car again because of a weak or dead battery. You can extend the life of a dying battery by turning off all non-vital accessories, such as the radio, and climate control system.

Situation number three: The engine suddenly stops running. Main indicators include a tachometer that shows zero rpm and the fact that you can no longer hear any noise from the engine. What just happened? A variety of possible problems. You could have run out of gas, the battery ran out of power, or there could be an electrical problem. You also could have shut off the car accidentally by bumping the ignition key with your knee. Can you keep driving? Not unless you have Fred Flintstone's car. No engine, no go. What to do: Be careful! Without the engine, there will be no power-assist to the steering or brakes. Both will be very sluggish and stiff. Get off the road as quickly as possible. Once your have come to a complete stop, try to restart the car. If it won't start, try to discern the problem. If you ran out of gas, you might be able to walk to a gas station. If the battery is dead, you might be able to jump-start it. For more on jump-starting a vehicle, check out Jump-Start. Otherwise, call a tow truck.

Situation number four: The temperature gauge suddenly rises into the red zone; the coolant warning light illuminates. What just happened? Your engine is overheating. Possible causes include: a loose or blown radiator hose, a stuck thermostat, a tossed serpentine belt or a damaged radiator. It could also be due to overtaxing the coolant system in high temperature conditions. Can you keep driving? It's not advised, as you may do further damage. There might be a slight time buffer, but realistically, you'll want to stop driving as soon as possible.

What to do: Exit the road as soon as possible. Overheating the engine can cause extensive damage. Turn off the engine as soon as you are stopped. If the overheating was simply due to environmental conditions (driving up a major hill in 120-degree heat while towing a trailer, for instance), you might be able to let the car cool down, refill the radiator with coolant (if necessary) and continue. Otherwise, attempt to determine the problem or call a tow truck.

Situation number five: You see or smell smoke; an engine oil light illuminates; the oil pressure gauge drops to the red zone. What just happened? Something is wrong with the engine's oil supply or circulation. If you see or smell smoke, then oil is most likely leaking somewhere where it shouldn't and then burning off. (Your car could be on fire, too, but let's not think about that). Low oil pressure is caused by either a significant loss of oil (the oil pan was punctured, for example) or a problem with the oil pump. Can you keep driving? Well, yes, but we wouldn't recommend it. The longer you drive, the more you increase the chance of causing major damage to the engine. Keep going, and you might end up with situation number two! To be safe, you'll want to get off the road as soon as you get a chance. What to do: Pull over and stop the car. Check the car's oil supply. If it is low, refill it. Attempt to determine the original problem. It could be something minor, like leaving the oil fill cap off or spilled oil from an oil change burning off a hot engine part. If you were able to fill up the oil, you might be able to drive to the nearest dealer or repair facility. Otherwise, call a tow truck.

Tips for pulling to the side of the road: 1) Don't be timid. Put on your hazard flashers and move over as quickly as possible. You might have to drive like a New York cabbie to accomplish this. If you want to get over, get over. Let everyone else worry about getting out of your way. 2) Avoid stopping on the left shoulder if at all possible. If you need to walk to a gas station or pay phone, you don't want to be trying to run across traffic. 3) At night, try to stop underneath a street lamp. This will make it easier for other motorists to see you. 4) Once you are stopped, pay attention for traffic. Remember, it's a lot safer to be inside your vehicle with your seatbelt on rather than standing outside on the street. 5) If you cannot get a safe distance away from the traffic flow before coming to a stop, either stay in your car and call for help or exit your car on the passenger side and walk further off the road or up any embankment. A leading cause of highway fatalities involve stopped vehicles and passengers who get out of a broken-down car and are struck by oncoming traffic. 6) Again, remember to turn on your car's hazard lights.

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