There I was, happily chugging up I-40 on a clear Arkansas night when—cough cough sputter clunk—my car decided to die. Was I filled with shame? Was I filled with terror? No. I was prepared.
I used to freak out if my car died on the highway. (Yes, this has happened to me more than once.) It’s a horrifying realization that you’re trapped in a little steel box surrounded by other drivers hurtling past you at 60 or 70 miles an hour. It’s incredibly frustrating, as well, because everyone else seems to be doing just fine. What’s wrong with me? What have I done wrong? Why won’t the engine start? Please god, please, just let the engine start and get me off this highway!
I know that feeling well, but that was before my car broke down for the 8,000th time. Now it’s gotten pretty routine.
As a visual of why I am now worryingly experienced with my cars breaking down on me, here is a photo of my first car:
Here is my second car (it’s in a junkyard now):
And here is my third car—the one that went clunk in the night on I-40:
Sure, these cars are and were all total hunks of unreliable garbage, more likely to break down on a given trip than not. The last time I made a drive that didn’t involve some kind of repair, I was driving my parents’ old Prius. But these cars have taught me several lessons—ones that I can now share with you.
Has it been a long time since you changed your oil? Did you notice a kind of weird whining sound when you pulled out of your driveway? Has that clunking sound been getting louder? These are all things to be mindful of, particularly if you’re driving a car given to you by your uncle who never cleans house even when relatives come over, if your car is a Saturn, or if you have ever bought anything ever off of Craigslist.
The idea is to be mindful and aware, even casually. If your car does suddenly break, it’s not a surprise, and that’s important.
I, for instance, was aware that my little ‘70s Volkswagen was having an overheating problem, and when it gave a thunk as I was driving from Little Rock to Memphis one warm evening, I was not shocked. I made rational decisions, and I made them quickly.
However, sometimes cars are cruel and they give you absolutely no warning whatsoever that they are about to fail you. Usually our cars do warn us, but we don’t always know how to listen for the signs.
In any case, knowing that disaster could strike at any time, always have in mind that this car could just shut the fuck off. Maybe even at this exact moment. When you’re in the far right lane of a highway, you can happily note that you’re next to the shoulder and can easily pull over. When you’re in the far left lane, always keep up your spatial awareness, and know how you could coast over to that far shoulder.
This mindfulness will greatly increase your chill if and when your car breaks down. Being chill is key—so that you don’t have that moment of panic, wildly scanning the road, missing something in your blind spot or changing lanes without signaling.
If you at all can, make your way all the way off the highway. You’ll know if you can, because up until this point you were being a good driver and making note of when the next exit was coming up. Be aware. Be prepared. Calmly curse the day you decided not to take auto shop class in high school.
Once you have exited the fast, dangerous highway and made it out of the way of other fast, dangerous moving cars, really, that’s all you need to do. Things get easy from here, because your primary safety is taken care of and that’s what’s important.
Make your car visible. Turn your flashers on, unfold your triangles (you should really buy some high-visibility folding triangles), and set your flares if it’s dark and dreary and you’re gonna be stuck there for a while. Also don’t leave your car on the far side of a curve, or in a spot thats extra hard to see. Here’s a checklist:
- Move away from your car. This is particularly true in the winter, say, if you skidded off the road. Somebody else might skid where you did, and hit your car. Don’t stand by it.
- See if there’s something that’s visibly wrong. Did your battery get disconnected? Did you not notice that you ran out of gas? Is there a plume of steam coming out of the hood? Did one of your spark plug wires come loose? Is an unidentifiable fluid gushing forth from under your car?
- Call a buddy. We all have a buddy. Somebody who knows your car better than you do. I have three people I can call in case one doesn’t pick up. They help me diagnose problems and they have helped me many times fix minor issues enough to get me home. Did that once involve me getting an electric shock re-connecting a spark plug with jumper cables? Most definitely. This is a key step, because you want an outside opinion on if you can fix this yourself or if you really do need to start making expensive decisions.
- Call the tow truck. There is no shame in it. I have done it. We have all done it. Sometimes there’s nothing that can realistically be done to get your car back on the road, particularly if your alternator just died, or if you’re on the hard shoulder of I-40 in the middle of the night and you just dropped a valve. I know this from experience.
- Let a professional figure out exactly what needs to be done. Let someone who knows what they’re doing tell you what’s wrong in order to get back on the road. Listen to everyone helping fix your car, learn something from them, and keep that knowledge in your mind when you’re next driving along, aware of what might go wrong next.
The primary goal of these steps is to really, seriously minimize the amount of time that you’re physically on the side of the highway. Everything is a calculation for getting off the shoulder with 18 wheelers whizzing past you. Your call to the tow truck should be as swift as possible, but you should know that a tow truck probably isn’t going to get to you any sooner than an hour after you call. So if you are in a safe place and able to do a quick roadside repair, like replacing the fan belt on your janky VW, or neatly executing a tire change, go for it. I’ve driven away from many breakdowns just by letting my car cool, reading a couple chapters of a book I brought along for my trip.
These are highway-oriented steps, and if you end up broken down out in the middle of nowhere on a rural road, things are slightly different. Obviously the danger of being next to the highway disappears. If you have to abandon your car for whatever reason, there are a few things you can do while you leave it to go get help. Tie a shirt or rag or bag around the door handle, code that you’re going to return to your car, broken not abandoned. Call the police to let them know that your car is at a specific location, and broken not abandoned. And figure out how long your car can stay where it is without getting towed. It might take you some time to get your car back up and running. That’s fine!
We’ve all been there, and it’s no fun. As long as you keep safety in mind and keep your cool, you’ll be fine. Don’t give up! It’s going to be fine.
Raphael Orlove is a Staff Editor at Jalopnik.