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Vehicle Failures

Regardless of how well you maintain your car, there is always a possibility that it may break down with little or no warning. The most serious vehicle failures are those that affect steering, braking or engine power. If your vehicle develops mechanical problems when you are driving, your main objective should be to steer safely off the roadway onto the shoulder, then call for help.

Be visible when stopped

  • Set out flares or other high-visibility warning devices such as reflective triangles. When doing so, be very cautious. When positioning any warning devices, you want to alert any approaching vehicles but minimize your personal risk.
  • Position warning devices at 100-foot and 200-foot increments behind your car.
  • If you do not have flares or triangles but have a passenger, direct the person to walk back 200 feet to 300 feet, stand well off the roadway and signal drivers.
  • If you decide you cannot correct the problem, signal for help. Raise the hood and tie a white handkerchief on your antenna, door handle or side-view mirror, or place it in the window. This signals an emergency situation.
  • Remain in your vehicle, and call for help.

Emergency road service. Emergency road-service vehicle operators usually can change a flat tire or perform minor repairs on the spot. In addition, many carry gasoline and jumper cables to take care of most vehicle failures.

  • If you must be towed to a service garage, first find out whether towing is covered under your automobile insurance, emergency road service program or auto-club membership.
  • Ask where the tow truck will take your vehicle, how many miles away the garage is and what the towing will cost.
  • You may have to arrange transportation, since passengers are not usually allowed to ride in the towed vehicle.
  • Joining an auto club like AAA can give you peace of mind regarding potential emergency situations on the roadway.

Most common engine failures. The most common engine failures are stalling, overheating or failure to start. Most such engine failures are preventable through proper maintenance.

Getting off the road. If you experience engine failure while in traffic, check for other cars, signal and steer to the shoulder of the road to a position as safe as possible. Such engine failures do not result in a complete loss of braking or steering. However, you must steer harder and apply much greater pressure on the brake pedal. If your engine begins to miss or stall, slow and try to steer off the road as soon as possible.

Unintended acceleration. A far less-frequent type of engine failure is caused by unintended acceleration, when your vehicle continues moving even when you want it to stop. Although rare, this occurs most frequently when a vehicle is shifted into gear from a stopped position.

To prevent this from occurring, always fully depress the brake pedal before shifting out of Park.

If your vehicle accelerates unintentionally, immediately use the brake to bring the vehicle to a stop. If the brakes are ineffective, shift to Neutral gear. This will disconnect the engine power from the drive wheels, allowing you to bring the vehicle to a stop.

Headlight, brake light or turn-signal light failure. Analysis of data collected on vehicles passing through AAA automotive diagnostic centers revealed that more than 24 percent of tested vehicles have one or more lights burned out due to electrical malfunctions.

  • Most light failures should be detected during routine vehicle checks.
  • Regardless of whether you perform all routine maintenance, sudden light failure can occur.

Sudden headlight failure. While failure of either brake or turn-signal lights increases your risk of being involved in a crash, sudden headlight failure on a dark, winding road can be disastrous. Here’s how to handle the situation:

  • Apply the brakes and at the same time hit the dimmer switch. High and low beams are on different circuits, so one or the other may still work.
  • If this does not help, turn on the parking lights, emergency flashers or turn signals.
  • It is critical to concentrate on getting the vehicle safely off the road and parked.
  • Once parked, warn other drivers of your presence by using road flares or emergency triangles – and do not drive the vehicle again until you take care of the problem.

If a tire fails or suddenly goes flat while you are driving, continue to look down your intended path of travel, keep a firm, steady grip on the steering wheel and maintain a straight course. You must concentrate on keeping or regaining control. Stay off the brakes. Use the accelerator to help you control the vehicle with one of these methods:

  • Ease up on the accelerator, allowing the engine to slow the vehicle.
  • Accelerating slightly may improve the vehicle’s directional stability. Once you have the vehicle under control, apply the brakes with light, steady pressure. If a front tire has failed, you will feel a strong pull toward the side where that tire is located.

When the vehicle is under control, find a place to safely pull off the road.

  • Park well off the highway. If possible, have at least 5 feet of clearance between you and the traveled portion of the highway.
  • Set the parking brake and move the selector to the Park position.
  • If you have a manual transmission, place the gearshift lever in First or Reverse.
  • If you plan to change the tire, make sure you are not close to moving traffic and that other drivers can see you.

  • If a fire breaks out under the vehicle’s hood or in the passenger compartment, steer the vehicle off the road.
  • Turn off the ignition and all switches, then get passengers out and well away from the vehicle.
  • Call 911 and notify the fire department.
  • If the fire is under the vehicle’s hood and flames are shooting out, do not raise the hood.

  • If your brakes fail but the vehicle’s engine still appears to be functioning normally, pump the brake pedal rapidly. You may be able to build enough brake pressure to steer off the roadway and stop safely.
  • If this does not work, apply steady pressure to the vehicle’s parking brake, which generally controls just the rear wheels.
  • Prepare to release the brake if the wheels lock. You can reapply the parking brake if needed.
  • There are several different types of parking brake systems. Take the time to review the vehicle owner’s manual to determine how yours works.
  • Downshifting your vehicle can help slow it down.
  • Find an “escape route” – a safe exit from the roadway.
  • Sound your horn and flash your lights to signal an emergency to other drivers.
  • In extreme cases, you may have to use more severe methods to slow your car, such as running along an embankment, scraping against a curb or driving into bushes or other obstructions.