How to Keep Your Family Safe When Car Trouble Strikes

By Kristin Varela  on August 20, 2014

Plenty of us have been there, whether as an adult or a child: You're halfway through your family road trip when the car breaks down. I vividly remember several occasions as a child when our family car died, leaving us stranded for what felt like an eternity waiting for a tow-truck driver. When one finally arrived, my family had to cram into its cab, shoulder to shoulder with the driver (a stranger, no less), without enough seat belts for everyone and me perched precariously on my mom's lap.

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So what should you do when your car breaks down and your kids are in the backseat? Erin Stepp, AAA spokeswoman, has tips to keep you and your family safe and sane when the inevitable happens.

Carefully pull over: In an emergency, the first thing to do is gently and safely bring the car to a stop. Pull over onto the far right shoulder, as far off the road as possible while remaining on level ground. If you're driving on an interstate or multiple-lane highway with medians, you may consider the left shoulder, again pulling as far away from traffic as possible.

Flash, baby, flash: In order to generate enough attention to notify law enforcement or a roadside-service provider of your whereabouts, turn on your car's hazard lights.

Raise the hood: Raising your vehicle's hood signals to a service provider that you need help. You can also signal that you need assistance by closing a brightly-colored handkerchief, scarf or even a baby's spit-up rag in a window.

Call for help: When calling for roadside assistance, make sure the service provider knows how many children will require transportation and if any of them need child-safety seats. While it may have been socially acceptable for me to ride on my mom's lap back in the early '80s, that wouldn't fly today.

Stay with your car … unless: If you're able to pull away from traffic, it's usually safest to remain with your vehicle until law enforcement or a roadside-service provider arrives. If you must leave the car, stick together as a family and have everyone exit through the side of the vehicle that's away from traffic.

Never leave children alone in, or around, a car: This one sounds logical, but sometimes we act illogically while under stress. Never leave a child alone in the vehicle while you leave to look for help. A car's interior temperature can rise quickly even with the windows cracked for air circulation. Children's bodies heat up five times faster than adults, making them more susceptible to heat stroke, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Secure Fido: If traveling with your family pet, secure it with a leash or pet restraint. This will protect both your animal and the roadside-service provider from unintended injuries due to a fearful or stressed animal.

Lock the doors, crack the windows: If temperatures allow, keep the car's windows almost closed and the doors locked while you wait for help. If approached by a stranger, stay in your vehicle and ask them to call for help if you haven't been able to call yourself.

Take inventory and stock up: Always keep a stocked emergency kit in your vehicle. Make sure you have these basics:

  • Cellphone (with charger) that's preprogrammed with your roadside service provider's number
  • Drinking water and kid-friendly, non-perishable snacks, such as a few granola bars or dried fruit
  • Extra medication and, if traveling with infants, diapers and baby formula
  • First-aid kit
  • Pencil and notebook
  • Your car's owner's manual
  • Flashlight with extra batteries
  • Jumper cables and tire pressure gauge
  • Flares, warning triangles or reflectors
  • Signal flag, retro-reflective vest or scarf
  • Windshield-washer fluid and wiping cloth
  • Engine coolant and fire extinguisher
  • Tool kit including screwdriver, pliers, duct tape and adjustable wrench
  • Umbrella

Most importantly, remember that your energy is infectious. Stay cool, calm and collected to help little ones get through the experience without undo emotional turmoil. Give the kids a snack and whip out your pencil and notebook for a few retro rounds of hangman or tic-tac-toe. Help will arrive soon.


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Senior Family Editor Kristin Varela blends work and family life by driving her three tween-teen girls every which way in test cars.  Email Kristin