01/26/2015 10:01 am ET Updated Mar 28, 2015

How Would You Handle a Vehicle Breakdown?

Having your vehicle prepared in case of an unexpected breakdown or a roadside emergency is something that everybody knows they should do. But how many people actually go ahead and do it?

A couple of weeks ago, my son who lives out West was driving with a friend on a rural road heading to Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats. With spotty cell phone reception, they pulled over safely to the side of the road to consult their road atlas - which I was thankful he had - and make sure they were following the right directions. Unfortunately, my son parked on top of some soft mud and ended up getting stuck - really stuck. After nearly five hours, they were finally able to get help thanks to a police officer who happened to be driving by.

This situation wasn't just a lesson for my son, but also for me on the importance of being prepared. Hopefully a vehicle breakdown or roadside emergency never happens to you, but if it does, know what to do with these tips that we share in our Smart Driver course:

  1. Have a reaction plan. Precautionary measures should always be taken, and the easiest way is to keep your vehicle well-maintained. In the cold winter months, I make sure to regularly check the air pressure in all tires, tire tread wear, and my vehicle's fluids. Unfortunately in situations like my son's, that's not enough. So you should also stay one step ahead by carrying an emergency roadside kit in your vehicle. It should contain signaling devices, a pocket knife, a flashlight, a first aid kit, water, and nonperishable food items. In cold-weather locations, it should also include a warm blanket. For frequent travelers, consider a roadside assistance service.
  2. Use your hazard lights. The moment you sense there is a problem with your vehicle and decide to pull over, turn on your hazard lights or "emergency flashers." This allows you to visibly notify other drivers that you are driving slow or erratically and need to safely pull over to the shoulder.
  3. Pull over the right way. When you finally decide to pull over and are on the highway or interstate, it's best to pull off at a rest stop or get off at the nearest exit. Sometimes - like in my son's case - that's not an option, so use the emergency shoulder and make sure your vehicle is as far to the right as possible. Thankfully my son did that and parked with his wheels turned to the right so that if his vehicle is struck from behind, it would not cross the lane into moving traffic - another great tip. When you do park, stay inside your vehicle with your seat belt on, whenever possible. If you must exit the vehicle, always do so from the right side to avoid traffic.
  4. Set up traffic warning signals. When you have enough distance between your vehicle and the nearest lane, and traffic is not too heavy, carefully exit your vehicle on the right hand side to set up a traffic warning signal. Cones, reflective triangles, or flares can all be used, but you will need at least three signals to effectively warn oncoming traffic of your vehicle breakdown. The first traffic warning signal should be placed at least 50 feet directly behind your vehicle. The second should be placed midway between the first traffic warning signal and your vehicle, but closer to the open lane on your left. The last signal should be placed toward the back of your vehicle and a few feet into the roadway so you can divert traffic away from you. Once you complete this set up, quickly return inside your vehicle. Safety should always be your first priority, so remember to only exit your vehicle if it is necessary and safe to do so. My son did not have warning signals, but as it got dark, he made sure he would make his presence known to passing vehicles by keeping his hazard lights and his vehicle's interior lights on.
  5. Get help. If you know you're going to need assistance, use your cell phone to call a roadside assistance service or the highway patrol. I believe this is one of the most important tips, especially now that almost everyone has a cell phone. In the case that you do not have a cell phone or your service is unavailable, like it was for my son, hang a white cloth or a piece of paper out your window and wait for the highway patrol. You should also make sure your car doors remain locked at all times.

While my son and his friend followed some of these tips, they definitely were not fully prepared. That's why I got them an emergency roadside kit over the holidays, fit with a blanket. If a roadside emergency should ever arise again, at least I know he'll be much more prepared.

For more tips on how to stay safe on the road, consider taking a driver improvement course, such as the AARP Smart Driver™ course, available online or in a classroom setting near you. For more information, please visit