Our Ultimate Guide to Auto Breakdowns and How to Avoid Them

As motorists, we rely on out vehicles to get us wherever it is we want to get to, whether that’s to visit our friends, go to work or the shops, or to set off on our holidays. It can be therefore be incredibly frustrating when our cars break down, leaving us stranded at the side of the road.

One of the best ways to avoid breakdowns is to keep your car in good running condition, making sure that you maintain and service it regularly. It can also be handy to learn a few tips and tricks to get your car going again, for example, if you have a flooded engine or a flat tire.

If you do break down, it’s essential that you know how to deal with the situation in a safe manner, whether you’re on a highway or a country road. All three types of road present their own set of risks, from high-speed, high-volume traffic on the freeway to twisty, narrow lanes with little visibility in the countryside. In this section, you’ll find a guide to dealing with all these conditions, to make sure that you can summon assistance, get your car mended and be safely on your way as soon as possible.

If your car does break down and you are unable to get it started again, it’s reassuring to know that help is never very far away, with a range of companies such as AA, RAC and Green Flag offering breakdown services, either using their own dedicated patrols, or through a national network of independent recovery agents and garages. You can learn more about the range of service these companies offer, along with advice on how to choose the right package options for your needs.

Avoiding Breakdowns

The best way to avoid a breakdown is to ensure that your car is regularly serviced by a franchised dealer or an independent garage. In this way, potential problems may be spotted and fixed before they can become more serious, and parts that may be becoming worn can be replaced in good time.

It is also important to keep your car well maintained in between services, such as checking and topping up the oil, testing the lights, checking the battery, inspecting the tire tread and pressure and checking the cooling system. These simple tasks may be carried out fairly easily by yourself at home, and can go a long way to help preventing your car from breaking down.

Solutions to Common Breakdown Problems

If your car breaks down and you find yourself stranded, you may just simply call your breakdown service. However, what happens if you’re not a member of a breakdown club? The first thing to do is to check your car’s handbook; they very often contain some useful troubleshooting information that may help you to get started again.

We’ve also put together some simple checks and advice to help you get you home – or at least to the nearest garage.

Locked Out

One of the most common reasons that breakdown services are called out is to rescue people who have become locked out of their car. This may be because the driver has locked the car keys inside the car, or simply because the remote central locking device (or the ‘plipper’ as it is commonly known) has stopped working.

If the plipper doesn’t work, it may be because the battery has run out. Although you will still be able to open the car door using the key, you will not be able to start the engine as it needs the plipper to turn off the immobiliser. Always carry a spare battery in your glove compartment, along with any tools you may need to open the case (such as a small screwdriver).

You should always make sure that you store your spare car key separately to the main set. This is particularly important if you have a coloured transponder key that acts as the master key. This key carries all the immobiliser programming information and is needed to programme any replacement keys. Some car manufacturers may charge over $1,000 to replace a master key, although others may be considerably cheaper.

Dead Battery

If you turn the key in your ignition and nothing happens, then you may have a problem with your battery. If you can hear a clicking sound when you try to start up the engine, it could just be that your battery terminals are loose; simply tighten them up with a spanner, making sure that you do not make contact between the two terminals.

If the terminals are secure, your battery could be run down, or even completely dead. Turn off anything that might be draining the power, such as the stereo, fan or lights, wait for 20 minutes and then try again.

If your battery is completely dead and you are lucky enough to be at home, you can simply take it out of the car and recharge it (find out how here …). Alternatively, you could use a set of jump leads to get a jump start from the battery of another car.

  • Park the two cars next to each other, but make sure that they are not touching.
  • Check that the batteries in both cars are the same voltage – there should be a label on the top of the battery with this information.
  • Clean the battery terminals if necessary.
  • Attach one end of the red cable to the positive (+) terminal of the good battery, then the other end to the positive terminal of the dead battery.
  • Fix one end of the black cable to the negative (-) terminal of the good battery, and then the other end to the engine block, chassis member, frame or any unpainted metal surface of the car that needs to be started (avoid using the negative battery terminal).
  • Start the engine of the good car, and leave it running.
  • A few moments later, try to start the car with the dead battery. If it doesn’t start first time, wait a few moments and try again. If it doesn’t start on the third attempt, you may have to buy a new battery.
  • Once the car is running smoothly – do not switch off; remove the cables one at a time, in the reverse order that you connected them.
  • Take the car out for at least a 20-minute drive to make sure the battery becomes fully charged. Turn off the stereo, fan and other non-essentials to ensure that the battery charges effectively.

Flooded Engine

If your engine is turning over, but your car will not start, then it’s possible that you may have flooded your engine.

Petrol Engines

Press the accelerator right down to the floor and crank the engine. This should clear the excessive fuel.

Diesel Engines

Turn the ignition (without starting the engine) and wait for the glow plug warning light to go out. When it does, crank the engine for 20 seconds.

Flat Tire

If you get a flat tire whilst you’re about and about, try to find somewhere firm and level to park. Switch on your hazard warning lights, turn the engine off and apply the handbrake. If you’re forced to change a wheel with your car on soft ground, you will need to place a plank or something similar under the jack to prevent it from sinking into the ground.

If you have a manual transmission, engage first gear if the car is facing uphill and reverse if it’s facing downhill; if your car is an automatic, leave it in ‘park’. Get all the passengers out of the car and safely away from the road. If you have any luggage in the boot, take it out if it’s obstructing access to the spare wheel and tools. If you have an emergency warning triangle, you should place it about 30-50 m behind the car.

Method For Fixing a Flat Tire

  • Take out the spare wheel, wheel brace and jack; these are often located in the boot of the car, under a cover in the floor.
  • Chock the wheel diagonally opposite to the one that is being changed with either wooden blocks, bricks or stones.
  • Remove the plastic wheel trim or cover (you may need to cut the nylon cable ties) using a flat-bladed screwdriver.
  • Use the wheel brace to slacken the nuts on the affected wheel by about half a turn. The nuts may be very stiff and you may have to use your body weight on the brace to move them.
    Consult the owner’s manual to find out where to place the jack; this step is essential – if you do not place the jack at the correct lifting point, it may collapse and seriously damage the car.
    Use the jack to raise the wheel, sliding the spare wheel under the car near the wheel to be removed as soon as there is enough room. This will act as a safety measure should the car slip off the jack.
  • Continue to raise the jack until the tire is 2.5 to 5 cm off the ground.
  • Once the wheel is just clear of the floor, unscrew the nuts in diagonal pairs and remove. Make sure that you put the nuts somewhere safe, such as a cup, hat or pocket so that they do not roll away.
  • Lift off the wheel; be careful here as it will be dirty and heavy.
  • Pull out the spare wheel from underneath the car and slide in the damaged wheel in its place.
  • Lift the new wheel onto the car, ensuring it is the right way round.
  • Screw on the wheel nuts in diagonal pairs and turn until finger-tight.
  • Use the jack to lower the car gently until the tire of the replaced wheel just touches the floor.
  • Tighten the wheel nuts lightly, and pull the punctured wheel out from underneath the car.
  • Finish lowering the car and remove the jack.
  • Fully tighten one wheel nut securely using the wheel brace, and then tighten the one diagonally (or nearly diagonally) opposite. Tighten the other nuts in a similar way, and then refit the wheel trim.