Expert advice: how to cope with a motorway breakdown

Slow moving motorway traffic. But what happens if you break down in it? Read on to find out (Picture © Volvo)

Slow moving motorway traffic. But what happens if you break down in it? Read on to find out (Picture © Volvo)

Motorways might be safe roads to drive on, but they can be a nightmare to break down on. What should you do if your car conks out in the fast lane? Where’s the safest place to stand? Who do you contact and what will they do? This answers all those questions and more.

For specific advice on what to do if you break down on a Smart motorway, read this article.

Is a motorway breakdown really necessary?
Some motorway breakdowns, such as running out of fuel, are the driver’s responsibility. Service areas are well advertised and many modern motors have trip computers that tell you the car’s approximate range. A driver should also have a good idea of how their car is behaving. If there are any vibrations, rattles, odd engine noises or unusual driving behaviour pull off at the next junction or service area to check them out in a secure environment. It’ll save you time and might even save your life.

How to cope with breaking down at speed
If your car starts to lose power when you’re travelling at speed and it’s obvious there’s something seriously wrong, keep calm, indicate left and use your momentum to move towards the hard shoulder as swiftly and safely as you can. Be aware that traffic in the lanes you’re moving into might be travelling faster than you are.

How to cope with a breakdown if you’re going slowly
Most people will have had their journey disrupted by someone’s car broken down in the middle of the motorway. There’s every chance these have happened suddenly in heavy, slow moving traffic and there isn’t much you can do about it. Remember, it’s illegal to walk on a motorway so put the hazard warning lights on, stay with your vehicle, and ring the police on your mobile phone.

When you get to the hard shoulder
This may feel like a sanctuary but the hard shoulder is a dangerous place with vehicles of all shapes and sizes speeding past in very close proximity. Once you’re on the hard shoulder, put your hazard lights on to alert other road users. If you can coast or still drive slowly, the nearer you can get to an emergency phone the better. When you do stop your car, do so as near to the verge as possible and turn the steering wheel to the left. Doing this ensures that if your car is shunted by another vehicle it should move away from the carriageway and not into it. Put the parking brake on and if it’s dark, leave your side lights and hazard lights on.

All car makers try to ensure breakdowns don't happen. When they do, you have to take certain precautions to maximise safety. (Picture © BMW)

All car makers try to ensure breakdowns don’t happen. When they do, you have to take certain precautions to maximise safety. (Picture © BMW)

Safety first

Even if it’s cold and wet, it’s important not to stay in your car. You might be less comfortable standing on the other side of the crash barrier, but you’ll be far safer. If you have any reflective vests in the car, put them on. Then get out of your car on the left side (or the right on the Continent). Ensure young children are being looked after by a responsible adult and if at all possible, leave any pets in the car so they can’t get spooked and run into the carriageway. Lock your car and climb over the crash barrier. If you can get to an even safer place up on the embankment, so much the better. Most importantly, don’t attempt to repair the car yourself!

If you can’t safely get out of your vehicle, keep your hazard lights and seatbelt on, then call 999 immediately.

Call the experts

If your vehicle is on the hard shoulder and you’ve safely left it, it’s best to contact your local highways agency.

The emergency phones on the motorway will connect you with the police or the local highways agency immediately. They’ll be able to tell where you are and send help.

You can also call them on your mobile:

  • If you’re driving in England, call National Highways on 0300 123 5000.
  • If you’re driving in Scotland, call Traffic Scotland on 0800 028 1414.
  • If you’re driving in Wales, call Traffic Wales on 0300 123 1213.
  • If you’re driving in Northern Ireland, it’s recommended you call the police on 999.

You can get in touch with your breakdown cover provider after you speak with them.

If you’re not on the hard shoulder, or if you can’t safely leave your vehicle, call the police on 999 immediately.

What happens next?
As I’ve said, the hard shoulder is a very dangerous place. Unless it’s a very simple fix such as putting some fuel in the car, the first thing our patrols will do is to move a broken-down vehicle away from the hard shoulder to the nearest junction or service area. This is because it’s too hazardous to repair a car next to the main carriageway. At Green Flag we’ll do our utmost to get your car going again. But whatever happens with your vehicle, the most important thing is that its occupants can continue their journey, no matter what.
Green Flag Nick Reid
Nick Reid is a fellow of the Institute of the Motor Industry and head of transformation at Green Flag

4 comments on “Expert advice: how to cope with a motorway breakdown

  1. Sandra 29/08/2016 1:01 PM

    Does not say what to do if you break down in the fast lane??!!

  2. Nigel Salt 22/04/2018 1:18 PM

    Yes it does read the paragraph breaking down at speed

  3. h smith 11/06/2019 12:24 PM

    Saw a poor guy with broken suspension in lane 3 of 4, not sure if he had hit something but his front wheel was twisted and sitting on the rim, no chance of coasting off. Terrible rain/spray/Terrible visibility and cars going past either side of him. He mustve been petrified waiting for someone to smack into him at speed.
    Even with hazards on you couldn’t see him till you were right at him, thankful we were in a different lane.

  4. Moira Bamborough 09/06/2021 5:16 PM

    I wouldn’t dream of leaving my pet/pets in the car if I broke down on a motorway. The thought of my beloved family pet locked in, whilst I’m safely up an embankment, wouldn’t even be a consideration. Why, in the world would anyone play Russian Roulette, praying someone won’t slam into their vehicle and killing their pet/s. If their are secured on a leash you shouldn’t have any issues (i.e. being spooked). Its a no brained.

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