One of the downsides of driving is that unexpected car breakdowns and car failures can happen at any time.

In this quick car breakdown guide, we’ll share what to do when your car breaks down on the road or a busy highway. These tips can help you keep your car, your passengers, and other drivers safe.

What to do when your car breaks down

1. Activate your hazard lights

Turn your hazard lights on as soon as you notice a problem with your vehicle. Hazard lights tell other drivers to steer clear of you and your car, so keep them on until help arrives.

2. Slow down and pull off the road

Stop your car on the shoulder of the road as safely and quickly as you can, preferably on level ground. If you have to pull onto the left shoulder, keep your car as far away from moving traffic as possible.

3. Can’t pull off the road? Avoid exiting your vehicle.

If you can’t pull off the road for some reason, don’t exit your vehicle or try to push your car to a safer location. Instead, call roadside assistance or a tow truck service. These responders are better equipped to safely block and redirect the flow of traffic and get your car off the road. If your vehicle is stopped in a hazardous position you can even call 911.

The only instance where you should exit your vehicle is if you’re concerned that another driver might hit your car from behind (e.g if you’re in the middle of a busy highway). If this happens, exit your car only when it is safe to do so and move to a safer location until help arrives. Leave your hazard lights on at all times to keep other drivers safe.

4. Put on the parking brake and turn your wheels away from the road

Applying the parking brake (aka the emergency break) and turning your wheels away from the road can prevent your car from rolling back into traffic.

5. Call 911 if necessary

If someone is injured or your car is in a dangerous position on the road, call 911. Emergency service operators can advise you on what to do until help arrives.

6. Call roadside assistance

A roadside assistance provider can send someone out to get your car up and running again, or arrange for your vehicle to be towed to a nearby mechanic. 

If you don’t have a roadside assistance membership, you can sign up with a provider and use their services on the same day (although providers may charge you additional fees for this perk). And in Ontario, there are plenty of roadside assistance providers to choose from.

If you’re a GuardTree subscriber, your vehicle’s used car warranty also includes roadside assistance like emergency towing, trip interruption costs, and replacement car rental. See below for more details.

7. Make your vehicle more visible to other drivers

Now that help has arrived and it’s safe to exit your vehicle, do what you can to improve your vehicle’s visibility. In addition to your car’s hazard lights, popping up your hood and placing reflective signage and flares behind your car can all help to ensure that other drivers are aware of your stopped vehicle well before they reach it on the road.

Read more: How to budget for car repair costs and breakdowns 

What to do when your car breaks down on the highway

Breaking down on the highway is a lot more dangerous than breaking down in a quiet suburban side street. If your car conks out while you’re on the 401 Trans-Canada (or any other highway for that matter), follow these extra steps to keep you and other drivers safe.

Stop as safely as possible

Stopping on a busy highway isn’t easy, especially when your car is struggling or completely unresponsive. Here are some pointers to help you come to a safer stop.

  • Signal early and stop gradually
  • Avoid suddenly crossing multiple lanes
  • Once stopped, engage your parking brake and turn your wheels away from oncoming traffic
  • Keep your hazard lights on

Don't be afraid to call 911

Even if someone isn’t injured as a result of the breakdown, it’s still a good idea to call 911 and notify them that your vehicle has broken down on the highway—especially if it’s in a hazardous position. Emergency services can tell you what to do until help arrives.

Avoid exiting your vehicle unless it's absolutely necessary 

It’s dangerous to exit your vehicle into oncoming traffic. Especially when your car breaks down on the highway. Generally, it’s better to wait for police or roadside assistance to arrive as they can safely block and redirect traffic around your car.

That said, if you find yourself in a breakdown situation where it’s absolutely necessary to get out of your vehicle, be sure to keep the following tips in mind.

  • Don’t exit from the driver’s side of the vehicle.
  • Wait for a break in traffic before exiting.
  • If you have any passengers in the car, make sure they stay buckled up.
  • Make your vehicle more visible before abandoning it for a safer waiting point. Emergency markers, pylons, and high-visibility signage and materials can all help to keep other drivers safe and alert roadside assistance.

Think twice before changing a flat tire

As a rule of thumb, you should only consider changing a flat tire on the side of a highway if there’s no chance that you will be an obstruction to any oncoming traffic. If your car is too close to a live lane, avoid changing the tire altogether. In most cases, waiting for roadside assistance to arrive is the safer choice for you, your passengers, and other drivers.

Consider roadside assistance BEFORE you need it

If you own an older vehicle and your daily commute involves a lot of driving on the highway, it may be worth paying for a roadside assistance membership (or a used car warranty that includes roadside assistance benefits) before you actually need assistance with a breakdown.

Yes, it’s possible to pay for one-off towing out of pocket. And yes you can join a roadside assistance service the day that your car breaks down. Just be aware, though, that you’ll generally have to accept additional restrictions and higher fees with either of these scenarios than you would with pre-arranged roadside assistance benefits.

Read more: Extended Car warranties 101

Protect yourself from the cost and inconvenience of unexpected breakdowns

Dealing with a sudden breakdown isn’t just costly—it’s inconvenient. To help you stay on the road while your car’s getting fixed (and save you from having to pay out-of-pocket for unexpected repairs), every GuardTree used car warranty includes roadside assistance benefits.

As a GuardTree subscriber, you’re eligible to make claims for roadside assistance any time your car breaks down—24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

We pay up to $175 per event for:

  • Towing
  • Winching
  • Jump start
  • Flat tire changes
  • Fuel delivery
  • Lock out service
  • Concierge service

GuardTree subscriptions also include:

  • Trip interruption benefits. If a breakdown occurs more than 150 kilometers from your residence and your vehicle requires overnight repairs, we will reimburse up to $150 per day for accommodation and meal expenses.
  • Replacement car rental. We will reimburse up to $50 per day for car rental if the time of the required repairs to your vehicle exceeds 8 hours.

Please note: If your vehicle is covered by a manufacturer’s roadside assistance plan, you will not be eligible to make a claim for roadside assistance with GuardTree until that manufacturer’s plan has expired by time or distance.

If you’re interested in a comprehensive extended warranty that you can cancel at any time, see what’s covered and use our price calculator to decide if a GuardTree extended car warranty is right for you.