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Flat Tire? Broken Windshield? How to Prepare for the Most Common Roadside Emergencies

By spending a few minutes preparing for possible problems before you hit the road, you'll be able to head off potential disasters.

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Prepare before you hit the road

Flat tire. Broken windshield. Collision. Oh my! The most common roadside emergencies sound like the plot of a horror movie, especially when inclement weather adds to the mix with snowdrifts, slick roads, and mud. And with more cars than ever on the road chances are you’ll be hitting the road sometime in the near future. But don’t panic! A little preparation goes a long way when it comes to managing roadside emergencies. Shore up on tips on handling mishaps in advance; fill your contact list with important numbers now, before something goes wrong; and add some safety must-haves to your trunk and you’ll be able to manage roadside issues when you encounter them and be back in the driver’s seat in no time. These maintenance tips will help extend the life of your car.

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Roadside EmergencyEmma Kumer/, Don Nichols/Getty Images

Make an emergency car kit

First things first. Before you ever pull out of the driveway, you should stock your car with a roadside emergency kit. AAA recommends the following to keep in your car at all times:

  • Mobile phone and car charger
  • Flashlight with extra batteries
  • Jumper cables or jump pack
  • Basic toolkit (screwdrivers, pliers, adjustable wrench, duct tape, plastic zip ties)
  • Tarp, raincoat, and gloves to help stay clean/dry working at the roadside
  • Rags, paper towels, or pre-moistened wipes
  • Warning devices (flares, reflective triangles, or LED beacons)
  • First-aid kit
  • Drinking water
  • Nonperishable snacks for both passengers and pets

For cold weather destinations add these in the winter:

  • Ice scraper/snow brush
  • Winter windshield washer solvent
  • Traction aids (sand, salt, non-clumping cat litter, or traction mats)
  • Shovel

Don’t forget these invaluable tools you should always keep in your car, too.

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Roadside emergency: Dead battery

Tell us if this one sounds familiar: You put the key in the ignition, turn it (or press the ignition button), and you’re greeted with a polite cough and fizzle, or worse, the dreaded sound of silence. Your car engine has gone dead and needs to be “jumped” back to life with voltage. For this emergency, you’ll need to either have the number of AAA on hand or to have jumper cables packed into your emergency kit. Even easier, keep a product like the WORX 12V Multifunction Jump Starter stashed in your car. This multifunction emergency tool jumps 12V car batteries, plus doubles as a two-way charger for cell phones, tablets, and other small electronics, and also has flashlight and emergency light combinations, so you if you need to call or signal for help, you’ll be powered up and ready to go.

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Roadside emergency: Broken windshield

Your windshield accounts for a large percentage of your vehicle’s structural safety, says Ed Sprigler, VP of strategic initiatives at Safelite AutoGlass, so it’s imperative to deal with fissures and cracks as soon as you encounter one. If you receive a crack from flying debris, pull over and evaluate the damage, advises Sprigler. If you’re unable to see clearly through the windshield, call roadside repair or emergency roadside assistance. If the crack is minor, set up an appointment through your insurance carrier to repair it immediately and if your windshield has three or fewer chips and the damage is smaller than six inches, you can simply stop at your nearest Safelite location for same-day service. In the colder months, you’ll want to know the winter driving mistakes that could put you in danger.

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Roadside emergency: Collision

It happens to the best of us, an unexpected meeting of the car with another car or non-moving object. If you’re in an accident, AAA suggests these step-by-step ways of dealing with the aftermath:

  • First, assist the injured. If medical attention is needed call 9-1-1. If you can’t safely leave your car or your car or the other vehicle is undrivable, call 9-1-1.
  • Next, control the scene. Before taking time to exchange information, get to a safe place. If there are no injuries and the vehicle is drivable, safely move to the right or left emergency lane. Turn on your hazard lights and set out warning flares or reflective triangles. Do not leave the scene of the crash, but find a safe place to remain until emergency services arrive.
  • Then, notify the police and submit a report. If the police do not come to the scene to open an investigation, you can file a report by visiting a local police department or automobile insurance agency in the days after a crash. Having a report on file may help later if a liability claim is filed.
  • Also, document the scene and exchange information. It is important to exchange and gather information with all parties involved in the crash, including witnesses. Having this on file will help complete any future paperwork or address potential problems.
  • Finally, notify your insurance carrier. Your insurance carrier will need to be notified following a crash to start the proper claim filing. Many insurance companies have staff available 24/7 and can assist immediately. Having proof of insurance in your vehicle is required by law and makes filing a claim easier if not at home.
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Roadside emergency: Icy roads and snow

More than 70 percent of U.S. roads are located in snowy regions, says Ed Sprigler of Safelite, making it critical for drivers to follow safety guidelines to prepare for winter driving. To prepare for an emergency scenario like getting stuck in a snowdrift or a car breakdown in the colder months, keep an emergency kit in your car stocked with items we listed above. Also, be sure to keep a pair of water-resistant or waterproof insulated boots in your car, says Mike Pintz of Northside USA, so you can shovel out the car or walk for help if you need to. If your feet get wet in a cold-weather situation, you transfer heat away from your body up to 20 times faster than if they are dry. Beware, your car won’t survive winter without these fixes.

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Locked keys in the carEmma Kumer/

Roadside emergency: Key locked in the car

According to AAA, locking your key in the car is one of the most common assistance calls they receive. To avoid having to call a locksmith, keep a second key in your pocketbook or backpack, or leave one with a reliable friend or family member (but don’t keep one hidden in a wheel well since criminals know to look there). And keep a note of what your key code number is in your phone’s notes section or in your wallet. This number may be located on a sticker in the glove compartment or the vehicle’s owner’s manual; ask your dealer if you’re not sure how to find it. If you can’t find your spare, with this information, a locksmith may be able to create a new key for you, or the dealer will be able to make one for you. Feeling lucky? You can also try this trick to unlock your car in 30 seconds without your keys.

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Roadside emergency: Tire blow out/flat tire

It can be a scary experience when a tire suddenly goes flat or blows out while you’re driving, says the Ford Driving Skills for Life team. If it happens to you, try not to panic. Gradually reduce your speed by coming off the gas and even braking lightly. Then find a safe spot to steer the car off the road. If a front tire blows out, it will make steering difficult and may even pull you in a direction you don’t want to go. Keep a firm grip on the wheel and steer in the direction you need to, but avoid jerking the wheel abruptly. After you get safely to the side of the road and away from oncoming traffic, if you have a spare and a jack, you can change your tire, or call for roadside assistance.

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Roadside emergency: Stuck in the mud

It oozes, it gushes, and it sucks your tire into the muck when you think you’re about to make a clean getaway from a grassy, off-road site. Mud. Read this now, and you’ll be ready to deal with the sticky stuff later on. According to the Ford Driving Skills for Life team, if it’s safe, the driver should get out of the car and walk up to the mud with a stick and see how deep it is before attempting to drive across. If you’re in a vehicle that lets you engage 4WD, now would be the time to use it. Once you’re moving across the muddy road, try to keep your speed up to avoid getting stuck, and if necessary, jiggle the wheel back and forth to gain additional traction. Can’t get any traction? Now might be the time to call for assistance. Note that many new cars come with roadside assistance programs, or both OnStar and AAA have membership plans you can purchase in advance. Watch out for all the ways you’re wasting money on your car.

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oil light in carEmma Kumer/

Roadside emergency: Oil light on

Stop, do not pass go, do not drive right by the service station. Once your oil light is on, it’s well past the time for a routine oil change, it means your engine has low oil pressure and if you continue to ignore it, the engine could (in a worst-case scenario) stop working or cause serious damage. Add oil to the car, then drive to a mechanic to have your engine looked at, or if the engine won’t start after you pull over, call for roadside assistance for a tow (this isn’t the time to jump the engine). Here are more reasons why your car won’t start.

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Roadside emergency: Spinout/skid

When the rear of a car slides, it’s called “oversteer,” says Ford Driving Skills for Life. This is a situation you need to read about now, so you’ll know what to do later. First, point the car in the direction you want to go before you end up spinning out. Make sure to look exactly where it is you want the car to go; don’t look at what you don’t want to hit. By looking in the right place, you are more likely to turn in the wheel in that direction, says the Ford team, and you will stop yourself from losing control and will keep your car on the road.

One way to avoid this dangerous situation, say the experts at Michelin Tires, is by keeping an eye on tread wear: take a look at your tire’s physical condition and wear; if your tread seems worn down or the tires seem damaged, have the tires checked by a professional. It may be time to upgrade your tires to something like the CrossClimate2, which delivers in all weather patterns—wet stopping, longevity, dry grip, and snow performance. (Tip: Grab a spare penny and use the penny test to check your tire’s tread depth.)

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Roadside emergency: Breakdown

You may find yourself in a situation where your car breaks down and will no longer respond while you’re driving. According to AAA, if a breakdown occurs, it’s important to evaluate your situation and note your location. Then turn on your hazard lights and try to get onto the far right shoulder, as far off the road and away from traffic as possible, while remaining on level ground. If you are safely out of the way of traffic, engage safety/emergency flashers. Once you are in a safe place, call for help. Never leave home without crossing off everything on our road trip essentials checklist.


  • Ed Sprigler, VP of strategic initiatives at Safelite AutoGlass
  • Mike Pintz of Northside USA

Melissa Klurman
Melissa is an intrepid explorer and award-winning travel journalist with more than 25 years of experience. She covers topics ranging from family travel and Disney to honeymoons and romantic beaches, and everything in between.