When you're dealing with roadside
emergencies, it's always better to
have a plan of attack than a
panic attack. A few simple preparations,
including an inexpensive emergency kit,
will get you through most breakdowns and
accidents. You're already familiar with the
standard kit you hear about every fall,
which includes a blanket, candy bars, a candle and all that other stuff. That kit is a
good idea. But there are a few additional
items you should stock in every vehicle you
own, along with this guide. By the way, seriously
consider joining a roadside assistance
plan. Even seasoned mechanics aren't too
proud to belong to one. One tow or a jump
start on a freezing day and the annual
fee will pay for itself.
Build This Emergency Kit
- Your car's owner’s manual. If you don't
have one, get one from your dealer. It'll
show you how to change a tire, explain
what all the warning lights mean, list
part numbers for lightbulbs, and provide
the fluid types and capacities so
you can refill with the right stuff.
- This LED Flameless Flare lasts much longer than an
ordinary flaming road flare. Attach the
magnetic base to your vehicle and set it
to flashing mode to warn other drivers.
- Spiral notebook and mechanical pencil
(writes in any position or weather and
needs no sharpening). Use to record
accident information, police report
numbers, phone numbers, etc.
- A cheap prepaid cell phone and a car
charger. Even if you already own a cell
phone, get one to keep in your glove
box. Inexpensive phones
and chargers are available at discount stores or online and can be reloaded with minutes from the side of the road.
Warning lights—what they mean
Oil light on.The engine has
low oil pressure. Check the oil
level and add oil if you have some with you. Otherwise, have
the vehicle towed to a repair shop. Driving a vehicle with
low oil pressure can cause catastrophic engine damage.
Brake light on. Check the
operation of the brake pedal.
If it feels spongy or goes to the floor, stop driving and have
the vehicle towed to a service facility. If the pedal feels firm
and the brakes stop the vehicle, check the brake fluid level
in the reservoir. If it's low, add more brake fluid. If the light
stays on after you've added fluid but the pedal is still firm,
have the vehicle serviced as soon as possible.
Airbag/SRS light on. The
airbags have shut down and
will not work if you get into an accident. Get the vehicle
control light on. There's a
problem with the system. You can still drive the vehicle, but
exercise extra caution on slippery roads and in turns. Have
the system serviced soon.
“Check engine” light on.
the engine's running smoothly
and the transmission is shifting properly, you can continue to
drive the vehicle until you can get it checked by a mechanic.
If it's flashing, pull over at the nearest safe spot. Have the vehicle
towed to a repair shop immediately. Driving with a flashing
“check engine” light can destroy expensive ($1,200 and
up) emissions components.
Charging system light on.
There's a major failure with
the charging system. Drive immediately to the nearest repair
ABS light on. There's a fault
in the anti-lock brake system.
You can drive the vehicle and operate the brakes. But exercise
more caution on slippery roads. Get the problem
checked out soon.
High temperature. Pull
over at the nearest safe spot
and turn off the engine. DO NOT open the radiator or the
coolant reservoir. Have the vehicle immediately towed to a
repair shop. Driving an overheated vehicle can cause serious
engine damage costing thousands of dollars to repair.
Jump-Start a Dead Battery
- Turn off the ignition and all electrical
accessories in both vehicles.
- Connect the positive jumper clamp
(marked “+” or colored red) to the
remote terminals on the good vehicle.
They're located away from the battery. If
you cannot find the remote terminals,
connect the positive (“+”) jumper clamp
to the positive (“+”) battery terminals.
Then do the same on the dead vehicle.
- Connect the negative jumper clamp
(marked “–” or colored black) to the
remote negative terminal on the dead
vehicle. Then connect the clamp to the
good vehicle. If the vehicles don't have
remote terminals, connect the negative
jumper clamp to an unpainted metal
surface at least 18 in. away from the
- Start the good vehicle and let it
charge up the dead battery for at
least five minutes. Then try to start the
dead vehicle with the cables still in
place. If it doesn't start, call for service.
Caution!Don’t skip this warning!
Connecting the jumper cables in the wrong order or attaching the spring clamps
in the wrong location can damage expensive electrical components and even
cause an explosion. Your owner's manual leads you through the procedure step
by step. Follow it to the letter! If you don't understand the procedure, call a tow
truck. Automotive batteries can vent explosive hydrogen gas when they are discharged.
Do not smoke when jump-starting, and don't use jumper cables with
cracked or missing insulation.
How to get unstuck
Place the gearshift in “1”
or “low.” Press the accelerator
and allow the spinning
wheels to move the vehicle
forward a bit (do not exceed
15 mph on the speedometer).
Then release the gas and let
the vehicle roll backward.
Immediately apply the gas to
roll forward again. Continue
this procedure to build
enough momentum to rock
your vehicle out of the rut.
Do NOT shift the transmission
back and forth
between “D” and “R.”
That can destroy your transmission
and result in a
repair bill of at least $1,500.
If you cannot rock the vehicle
out using the procedure
above, call a towing service—it's cheaper than a new
What to do if you're in an accident
- Check for injuries. If anyone
is injured, call 911
immediately. Do not move
injured occupants unless
you see fire, suspect the risk
of fire, or are instructed to
do so by 911 operators.
- Find out your location.
Note the street address,
highway mile marker, destination
sign or nearest billboard.
and your insurance company
need this information.
- Note the weather conditions,
skid marks and the damage to the other vehicle. Sketch the accident scene.
- Locate any witnesses and
get their account of the accident
and their name, address
and phone numbers.
- Don't admit to any fault.
- Get a copy of the police
report or find out how to
obtain a copy.
- Don't make any “deals” to
pay out-of-pocket in order to
avoid notifying your insurance
company. Your policy
requires you to report the
accident even if you choose
not to file a claim.
- Contact a towing service to move your vehicle
to a repair shop, and make
arrangements to get home.
- Call your insurance company
to report the accident
and file a claim.
Photo by © MY LIGHTSCAPES DREAMSTIME.COMRoadside assistance
Get Help Online
Find a towing service.
If you have Internet access
on your cell phone, enter
towing.com and then your
location. Or call a friend
who has computer access
and ask him or her to enter
your location information at
Find a local mechanic.
Use your cell phone's
Internet function or call a
friend with Internet access.
Then enter iatn.net and
click on the “Having car
trouble?” tab. Or enter
cartalk.com and search for
Back to Top
When it's safe to change a tire
Changing a tire is fairly
find all the instructions on a
decal near the jack and in
the owner's manual. But in
some situations, you should
not change your own tire.
If you have a flat tire on a
highway or narrow residential
street and the flat tire is
on the driver's side of the
vehicle, call for roadside
assistance. Even if you pull
off onto a paved shoulder,
the risk of being struck by
another vehicle is extremely
high—especially at night.
If the highway has a narrow
or unpaved shoulder
and there's a nearby exit,
you can drive the vehicle to
the exit and call for help
once you're off the main
road. Turn on your hazard
flashers and drive slowly. Be
warned that you will most
likely destroy the tire and
possibly the wheel by driving to the exit. But that's
smarter than changing a flat
tire on a busy shoulder.