Preparing for car breakdowns on road trips

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For approximately $50, travelers can buy supplies that could help if they find themselves stuck on the side of the road. (Sadie Anderson)

Many students travel long distances to attend BYU and are well-acquainted with road trips. Something students may be less familiar with is being stuck on the side of the road with car issues.

Proper preparation and a knowledge of roadside safety can help ensure travelers have a safe trip, even when faced with unanticipated car issues that can leave them stranded for various hours.

Eighty-eight percent of Americans own a car, the second highest percentage in the world, according to a survey done by the Pew Research Center in 2014.

As car ownership increases, more Americans will inevitably experience mechanical issues with their motor vehicles.

There was a 44 percent spike in the number of consumers that reported battery failure within the first three years of ownership from 2016 to 2017, according to a vehicle dependability study done annually by J.D. Power.

Unexpected car troubles — like a dead battery or a flat tire — can leave travelers stranded with little to no resources. Without proper preparation, these unfortunate situations can leave passengers to the mercy of the hot summer temperatures, reaching upwards of 100 degrees.

Travelers who experience car troubles in the winter months can be up against other elements like freezing temperatures, snow or ice storms.

Ariean Colton was traveling near Escalante, Utah, with her husband and two others when their car broke down around 11 p.m.

“All we heard was a loud screeching, so we stopped. We didn’t have cell service or data, so we just tried calling 911. We got through and they gave us the phone number for the towing company. Somehow we got service for that,” Colton said.

Even if there is cell phone service, help may not be able to reach travelers immediately — especially when driving through long stretches of open road.

“The tow truck came from Bryce, which was about two and a half to three hours away. They were apparently the only tow company to come to that area, so it wasn’t until about 3 a.m. when they came,” Colton said.

Simple preparations that take little time and money can make a huge difference in such situations that require travelers to wait for aid.

For approximately $50, travelers can create a small kit containing jumper cables, a first aid kit, an LED flashlight, an emergency blanket, a gallon of water and energy-rich foods. These supplies could help passengers if they find themselves stuck on the side of the road for multiple hours.

“Water was the thing we needed the most. Extra water would have helped in our situation,” Colton said.

While physical preparation is vital, knowing how to act when a breakdown is evident is equally important.

When a car breaks down, drivers have to make one critical decision — pull off to the side of the road immediately or try to make it to the next exit. Drivers could try to make it to the next exit if possible, even if that means ‘limping,’ according to safety experts. However, this could cause further damage to the car.

“If anything sounds strange or anything on the gauges doesn’t look normal, it’s best to pull over because not doing so could cause further damage,” said Owner of Heber Valley Towing Brad Belcher.

Drivers should pull off of the road as far as the conditions will allow if it is necessary to stop immediately. Travelers should aim to put as much distance between themselves and other passing vehicles as possible. Failure to do so could potentially cause additional accidents and injuries.

Some travelers, even with very little mechanical knowledge, may try to get out of the vehicle to evaluate the situation before calling for help.

“A lot of people will pop the hood of the car, but they have no idea what they’re looking for,” Belcher said.

Once the car is safely off the road, safety experts suggest travelers call for help immediately. Depending on the location, it may be best to wait for a highway patrol if there is no cell service.

Travelers that have no cell service may choose to accept help from friendly passersby or walk along the road to try to find cell service. If so, travelers should write down what time they left, what direction they headed and their personal information, including the information about anyone they are traveling with.

While waiting for a tow truck or highway patrol, drivers should strive to make themselves visible to passersby, according to AAA.

AAA suggests that motorists open the hood or trunk of the car and tie a piece of fabric, preferably white or bright colored, to signal a need for help. Turn on emergency flashers as well.

If travelers are stuck on the side of the road at dark, they should keep as many lights on as possible, including the headlights and interior lights. This will help other vehicles see the stranded car and allow for mechanical help to find them.

It is safest to stay in the car in most circumstances, according to AAA.

Passengers should not stand behind or directly in front of the car if they do exit the vehicle. Failure to do so could cause severe injuries if the broken down car were to be struck by another vehicle.

While in the car, do not keep the car engine turned on for extended periods of times to heat or cool it. This could potentially lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.

If travelers need to open their windows, they should only crack them. It is potentially dangerous to open windows or doors to strangers that stop to help, according to AAA.

Officer Travis Bushman of the Provo Police Department said that if a stranger stops on the side of the road offering to help, travelers should use caution. Bushman said there are few reports of roadside robberies in the Provo area, but it could be more common in other areas of the state or country.

“Ask ‘what are their intentions?’ Ninety-nine percent of the time, they’re probably just helping,” Bushman said.

Always ask for identification when help arrives. Drivers should ensure themselves that this is the person they are expecting.

Experts also suggest that travelers become familiar with the type of roadside coverage their car insurance may offer. This could help them know who to call and the costs they can expect when stuck on the side of the road.

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