Road Trip Safety: What to do When Your Car Breaks Down

5 Los Angeles Misconceptions
Exploring Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida

Note: AAA was the hero of this story, and if you don’t have a membership with them we highly recommend it. We also recommend making sure you always have an emergency kit in your car.


No matter how much you prepare for a road trip, there are a number of things that can go wrong at any given moment. Driving is, by nature, dangerous. According to the infallible Wikipedia, motor accidents kill around 40,000 people a year in the United States.

Such statistics are hardly a deterrent to those seeking the open road, though. Tara and I love road trips, whether we’re exploring Iceland’s Golden Circle or staying closer to home.

LET IT

As vast as it is, the United States offers some of the best road trip opportunities (Added bonus: You don’t have to worry about pesky things like driving on the opposite side of the road). Recently we explored the Gulf Coast, which took us from Florida to Texas. The trip was disaster free, and a lot of fun.

Our newest road trip was a matter of necessity. Last March Tara accepted a new job in California, which starts in just a few days. This meant moving her and all of her belongings to the L.A. area. Road trip time!

Our drive from Houston, Texas to Los Angeles, California would take 3-4 days. Being the planner that I am, it was mapped out carefully, with lodging booked and timetables set.

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And all of Tara’s belongings shoved into a single Toyota Matrix.

We were careful to take the car to the shop the day before leaving and get it checked out. With the go-ahead from our mechanic, we hit the open road.

Despite these preparations, disaster struck.

Six hours into the drive, on a lonely stretch of highway between San Antonio and Fort Stockton, we blew a tire.

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Oops.

It couldn’t have been a more inopportune time.

We were in the middle of nowhere. The next exit was at least twenty miles down the road, and it was a simple turnaround. There was barely any cell reception–which, in this technology-driven world, was the scariest part. It was pushing ninety degrees Fahrenheit, and our car was loaded to the gills, adding extra weight.

We made it out of the situation safely, but in doing so we were reminded that disaster can strike out of nowhere. It’s important to know what to do when your car breaks down, and how to ensure that the situation doesn’t go from bad to worse.

1. Don’t Panic

It can be so easy to enter that downward spiral of fear and anger that loves to rear its ugly head when things go wrong. Whoever you’re traveling with becomes a potential outlet for your anxiety, and the root of the problem is ignored in favor of name calling and catastrophizing.

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Hard as it may be to resist, don’t fall into this trap. We’re happy to report we did quite well, thank you!

Not only does panicking and general ire hurt your relationships and your mood, it also wastes valuable time. Time that could be better spent contacting people that could help you. Instead of lashing out, take a few deep breaths. Force yourself to remain calm and…

2. Assess the Situation

Are you in a safe place? Can you pull off the road? Is anyone injured?

Take stock of the situation. In our case, this meant pulling off onto the shoulder of a busy interstate. We made sure that we were far enough off the road to be safe from the cars and semi trucks, which were clocking in around 80 mph.

Once off the road, we checked the damage. Luckily, only one tire had blown, and it didn’t seem to have caused additional damage. We managed to destroy the tire pretty completely, though.

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Double oops. Probably should’ve gotten a new tire before leaving.

The car’s spare was thoroughly buried beneath all of our cargo, and there was no way we could reach. With the tire as destroyed as it was, we knew we couldn’t limp along to the next exit.

We realized pretty quickly that we would need someone’s help.

3. Take Action

Whether it’s changing your tire out, waving someone down, or calling for help, once you know the gravity of the situation it’s time to do something about it.

We had very limited cell service, but luckily we managed to place a call to AAA and put in a request for roadside assistance. This involved a lot of waving our cell phones in the air and standing in one spot to try and eke out a little mobile reception.

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As soon as we connected with AAA we were told that someone was on their way to assist us in the next hour. We felt better immediately. Now all we had to do was wait.

Right?

4. Be Wary, but Gracious of Strangers

During our wait four separate drivers pulled over to see if they could help us. Even after we told them that we had someone on the way they offered assistance in the form of water bottles and Gatorade.

We were incredibly grateful for the help, especially considering how hot it was, but we were also conscious of the fact that we were two women standing on the side of a very busy freeway. We approached each Good Samaritan with equal amounts suspicion and relief.

In general, people tend to be well-intentioned. Tara and I have been all over the world, and we have yet to be in a situation where anyone meant us any real harm. It’s one of the reasons we’re so keen to give back when we travel.

It’s important to remember the general sense of goodwill that people bring to the table — but it’s equally important to be sensible, aware, and prepared.

We were ready for impromptu karate, if needed.

5. Be Prepared to Wait

Two hours into our wait for AAA, we realized that something might be wrong. Fighting with the spotty cell service, we discovered that instead of sending a tow truck, AAA had opted to try and find us a new tire. According to them, this was the cheaper route.

In doing so, they had reached out to an independent contractor named Jack. Jack was the only available mechanic for at least 30 miles and took it upon himself to find us means of getting off the roadside.

Unfortunately, being Saturday night and the middle of nowhere, his hunt for a temporary spare tire would ultimately stretch our wait time to a total of almost five hours.

Taking off the bike rack to get to the goodies in the back of the car.
Taking off the bike rack to get to the goodies in the back of the car for the wait.

If you have the misfortune of having your car break down, hopefully it will be in a more well populated area than Ozona, Texas. Even in the cities, though, it can sometimes take several hours before the help you need arrives.

Settle in for a long wait, and anticipate the worst. You’ll be that much more relieved if they show up early.

Like our moms would tell us — always bring water, blankets, and food. Semper preparatus! Always be prepared!

6. Keep in touch with someone on the outside

As our wait for Jack and his elusive tire stretched later and later, we did what we could to keep others informed.

Even with limited cell service we were able to get out the periodic text message to family members. We called AAA to update them on our status. We posted to Facebook and Instagram so that our general followers and friends knew where we were.

This wasn’t just because we were trying to pass the time.

We wanted as many people as possible to know where we were, in case it became an issue of personal safety. We were leaving the digital equivalent of a paper trail, even taking pictures periodically to mark our progress.

7. Safety is always your first priority

When we first broke down it was nearly 5pm.

Four hours later, at 9pm, the sky was darkening.

What had become a long, boring wait by the side of the highway suddenly took on a new tenor. Being stranded in the light is significantly different from being stranded in the dark, and we happened to be stuck in the area of the continental U.S. that brags about having the darkest skies in the lower 48 states.

Uncomfortable with the progressing situation, we called AAA back and asked them to send a police officer out to wait with us. At this point, Jack was sending us periodic text messages, updating us on his tire hunt.

While we appreciated the flow of information, we were uncomfortable. It was darker than pitch and we were going to let some strange man come meet us on the side of the road?

No thanks.

Goodwill of humanity aside, self-preservation always comes first. When the officer commissioned by AAA didn’t show up within half an hour we called 911. They put us in contact with the local police department and we had a deputy at our sides within ten minutes.

When Jack finally arrived with a spare tire, we were immediately grateful for our deputy. While Jack was a perfectly pleasant fellow, who had gone above and beyond to help us during his time off, his general appearance was startling enough that I was glad we weren’t alone. Generally grubby, smoking a cigarette, and with one blind eye, he looked a little like a pirate who had traded in his ship for a mechanic’s shop.

8. Remain flexible

As time went on, we found ourselves faced with a number of decisions that required flexibility.

The arrival of One-Eyed Jack heralded one of these decisions. The tire was too small for the car, and would not last the rest of the trip.

We had two options.

Option #1: We could continue on to Fort Stockton on the tire. It was a two hour drive, but Fort Stockton was a bigger town and more likely to have services open on Sunday.

Option #2: Go back to Ozona, where nothing was open until Monday and get a motel. One-Eyed Jack assured us he would try to find a tire that fit properly the next day, despite it being Sunday.

We ended up opting to get a motel in Ozona. Again, this had to do with our personal safety. We simply didn’t feel comfortable driving a spare tire for two hours, especially at night. We had been on the road (or next to the road) since 9am that day and were ready for bed.

One-Eyed Jack and the deputy switching out our tires.
One-Eyed Jack and the deputy switching out our tires.

Having your car break down already throws a wrench in your plans. Being determined to get back on track quickly can potentially lead to more frustration — sometimes the best solution is to sit tight, get some rest, and adjust your plans accordingly.

9. Find the humor in the situation

If you’re given the choice between crying and laughing, laughter is usually the best choice. As boring, aggravating, and anxiety-inducing as our situation was, we did what we could to entertain ourselves.

Tara, in true paleontological fashion, inspected the limestone rocks along the side of the road. She even found a bivalve shell fossil!

Paleontological sleuthing success!
Paleontological sleuthing success!

We told stories and considered contemplated the jarring differences between small-town West Texas and the cities that both of us are more accustomed to calling home.

That night, in the motel room, we watched television and tried to forget about the fact that we still didn’t have a driveable car.

In the end, One-Eyed Jack pulled through. Despite the fact that it was Sunday, and he had to commission a tire from a town an hour and a half away, he got us a tire.

It was after 4pm on Sunday, but we were on the road again.

And we're off!
And we’re off!

The sheer ridiculousness of being unexpectedly stuck for 23 hours in the middle of nowhere was enough to make us laugh.

Sometimes it’s hard to find humor in bad situations, but looking for the bright spots does wonders for morale. Given the choice, I would much prefer to ride out a roadbump with a smile on my face.

Remember: Be safe, be prepared, and be communicative

If all of these tips could be boiled down into three main themes, it’s these:

  1. Safety is always your first priority.
  2. You should always have a plan, as well as a backup plan
  3. Constant communication is key.

Road trips are a lot of fun, and give you the opportunity to see the amazing, changing landscapes of the U.S. It’s such a vast country, and we usually pass most of it by, flying over a topographical wonderland.

If you’re hitting the road, make sure you’re doing so safely, and that you’re prepared if disaster strikes.

5 Los Angeles Misconceptions
Exploring Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida
  • I’m glad to know you gals got out of the bad situation safely. Good think you were together, and not traveling alone! And I’m thinking now, I should probably make sure in the future that when we do a road trip, the spare tire is easily accessible, though that’s easier said than done. Luckily, we do have AAA as well.