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What to do if you break down on a motorway

May 28, 2021

Passing your driving test is the ultimate rite of passage for any young person. It’s your ticket to freedom, finally letting you get behind the wheel for epic adventures on the road.

But if you ask first time drivers what their biggest fears are, many will mention driving on the motorway.

These fast road networks throw up a range of hazards for drivers, such as high speeds, entering and exiting and middle lane hoggers! But one of the biggest worries is what to do if you break down.

In this article, we’ll run through what you should do if you break down on the motorway, what not to do, and how you can reduce the chances of it happening in the first place.

We’ll also cover insurance for a first time driver and why it can be so valuable when you’re in trouble on the road.

Why you shouldn’t be scared of breakdowns

It’s easy to see how breaking down on the motorway can cause any driver anxiety, particularly when you’re new to the road.

Being shoulder-to-shoulder with huge lorries and trucks, with everyone expected to drive at consistently high speeds. That’s all while maintaining strict concentration to avoid disrupting the flow of the lanes.

Any mistakes could be fatal for a driver, their passengers, and surrounding vehicles. We’ve all seen footage of motorway pile ups, whether they’re in the movies or on the news.

But in reality, driving on the motorway becomes easier with time, and you can take comfort in the fact that motorway breakdowns are really common.

The UK Government says that in the summer of 2018 alone – from the last week in June to the first week in September – there were 48,500 breakdowns on English motorways.

Also, the prospect of breaking down on the motorway is much less daunting when you learn how safe the roads are.

The UK is considered quite a safe place to drive. In fact, Highways England says that while many people fear breaking down on motorways, British roads are “among the safest in the world”.

They say that if a driver is travelling at a speed of 60mph on a motorway or A-road, they should pass a safe place to stop “no more than every 90 seconds”.

The prospect of breaking down on the motorway is much less daunting when you learn how safe the roads are.

A busy motorway with lots of traffic at sunset
Remember standard breakdown advice

Knowing what to do when you break down on a normal road is a good foundation on which to build your knowledge. Much of this advice crosses over into what you should do if it happens on a motorway.

If your car breaks down generally, it’s important to stay calm and, if you can, get your car off the road as quickly and safely as possible. Then, the Highway Code says to take steps that can help other road users stay safe. These include putting on your hazard lights and wearing highly visible clothing.

The next step is to place a warning triangle at least 45 metres behind your vehicle on the same side of the road as a warning to other drivers. However, don’t do this on a motorway.

At night time, help combat poor visibility by keeping your sidelights on, alongside your hazards, and avoid standing in front of the lights so they can be easily seen by other drivers.

When you’re new to the road, it doesn’t mean you can’t be protected in these situations just like experienced drivers. Look for insurance for first time drivers with breakdown cover that will offer roadside assistance in your hour of need.

What to do if you break down on a motorway

If you are unfortunate enough to break down on a motorway, remember the steps above as well as the following additional tips. It can be a scary situation, but keeping a clear head and taking basic steps should see you through.

If possible, you should try to exit the motorway at the next junction or service station. A recent Government campaign, called ‘Go Left’, advises what to do if this isn’t possible:

  1. Turn on your left indicator
  2. Get into the left lane
  3. Pull into the hard shoulder or next emergency area
  4. Put on your hazard lights
  5. Stand behind a safety barrier
  6. Call for assistance

If possible, you should try to exit the motorway at the next junction or service station.

A person standing in-front of a broken down car using their mobile phone to call for assistance on the hard shoulder of a motorway

You will either be on a standard motorway which means pulling left into the hard shoulder, or it will be a newer ‘smart motorway’, which won’t have one.

On these roads, you need to look for the ‘emergency areas’, which appear at regular intervals. They’re painted orange to help you see them more easily, and will be signposted clearly with blue signs so you know how far away the next one is.

Whether you’ve had to pull onto the hard shoulder or an emergency area, what to do after is generally the same.

Try to make sure you leave enough space to get out of the vehicle on the side that is furthest from passing traffic, which in the UK will be the left-hand or passenger door.

Switch your hazard lights on and then, when it’s safe, exit the vehicle with your passengers and get behind a safety barrier. This will help you stay away from the high-speed traffic, particularly in dangerous conditions such as rain or night time.

To call for assistance, there are free telephones available both in the hard shoulder and emergency areas. You should try to use these phones as a priority, but if for whatever reason this isn’t possible then you can use your mobile phone.

The Highway Code says to face traffic when talking on the phone, which helps you to keep an eye on any potential risks from oncoming vehicles.

Also, while it is recommended that you stay a short distance from the vehicle, in some cases you might feel safer there. For example, if another person is making you feel at risk or unsafe, the Code advises to get back in the car via the left-hand door, lock all the doors, and wait until the danger has passed before getting out again.

You might be in a situation where you are unable to make it to the hard shoulder or emergency area. If that happens, just try to move as far as possible over to the left.

If you made it to the furthest left lane, only get out of the car if it’s clear enough that you can get safely clear of the carriageway. If you’re not in the furthest left lane, it’s important to stay in the car, keep your seat belt and hazard lights on, and dial 999.

Drivers with a disability, or with a disabled passenger, can also remember these tips. If the disability means being unable to follow advice around leaving the car, stay inside with seatbelts and hazard lights on, even if you have reached the hard shoulder or emergency area.

Then call 999 who will be able to work with Highways England to provide additional help as needed, for example closing motorway lanes or sending a Traffic Officer.

Meanwhile, deaf drivers can use the ‘SignLive’ service to call Highways England in the event of a breakdown. The service is live 24/7, 365 days a year, connecting you with a professional interpreter who can contact Highways England on your behalf, act as a translator in your conversation and help you get the assistance you need.

The Highway Code says to face traffic when talking on the phone, which helps you to keep an eye on any potential risks from oncoming vehicles.

A time lapse of a motorway at night with trails of car lights
What not to do if you break down on a motorway

It’s just as important to remember what not to do during a motorway breakdown to avoid making the situation any more dangerous or difficult.

For example, although already mentioned above, make sure you don’t put out a yellow triangle in a motorway incident as you would during a normal breakdown.

The Highway Code states that you should never do this. Standing near traffic to place the triangle, and take it away, will just cause danger for you and other motorway users.

Meanwhile, the advice is to stay away from the vehicle in a safe spot away from traffic. Therefore, even if the repairs needed are fairly simple, do not attempt to make them yourself.

It’s much safer to stay away from the vehicle and call for assistance. Between help from authorities, emergency services, and your first time driver insurance policy, you have no need to take unnecessary risks.

If you have children in the car, do not let them become overwhelmed by the situation – keep them calm. Meanwhile, avoid taking animals out of the car, even if you are getting out yourself.

If it’s an emergency situation where they have to be taken out of the car, then they must be kept under control and not left to run into the lanes of traffic where they could get hit or cause an accident.

Tips to prevent breakdowns

Sometimes, the best way to stay safe in an emergency is to prevent it from happening in the first place. The same is true with incidents on the motorway, and careful driving is the first on the list.

Driving requires your full attention, especially on fast and dangerous roads, so don’t get distracted by the radio, snacks, or by your passengers.

Any pets in the car should be safely restrained so they can’t divert your attention, as well as for their own safety. And it goes without saying that you shouldn’t hold your mobile phone or sat nav while driving, even if you’re stopped at a traffic light or stuck in a traffic jam.

There are also plenty of actions to be taken before you even turn on your engine that will make breakdowns both less likely and less stressful.

Planning your route before you go, for example, will help you master the motorway, what lanes to be in, and what you need to do in the event of an emergency.

Remember to check your car regularly to spot and fix common problems before they catch you out, no matter if you’re making a typical trip to work or about to set off on your bucket list road trip.

Firstly, check the tyres, which Highways England says were the cause of as many as 40,000 breakdowns in the year to May 2020. Make sure your tyre pressure is appropriate and look out for any signs of wear and tear, including cuts and the tread depth, which should be at the legal limit of 1.6mm.

Doing the 20p test is a simple way to check this. All you need to do is find a 20p coin and place it in the tread grooves of your tyres. If you can’t see the outer band of the coin, then the tread is still fine.

A person using a tool to check the tread depth of their car tyre

Check the engine oil regularly using your dipstick, as well as your screen wash and top up if necessary. Meanwhile, ensure your indicators and all lights, including hazards, are in working order. Hazard lights are used only occasionally, so it can be easy to take for granted that they’re working.

Also, although it sounds like stating the obvious, make sure you have plenty of fuel in the tank to either get to your destination or at least to the next petrol station. In the year to May 2020, more than 6,000 people in England broke down simply because they ran out of fuel.

Driving on the motorway carries risks, so always be honest with yourself to ensure you’re in the right frame of mind before doing it. If you’re tired, for example, the journey should wait until you’ve had some rest. 

Meanwhile, if you’re injured or have a medical condition that could affect your driving, make sure you tell the DVLA. If it leads to an accident and you haven’t told them, you may find yourself being prosecuted.

Protect yourself with first time driver insurance

Driving safely on the motorway requires confidence, and there’s nothing like proper protection to help you build it.

By arranging first time driver insurance through Smartdriverclub, you can enjoy benefits such as breakdown cover and personal accident cover.

Meanwhile, our black box insurance reviews your driving habits and calculates your risk of being involved in an accident, which can earn you discounts when you renew your policy. Get in touch today to find out about our first time driver insurance.