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What to do if your car breaks down this winter

car breaks down Many of us will have been struck with a breakdown at some point which has disrupted our motoring plans and left us stranded. And with winter weather looming, breakdowns can become even more likely - and the importance of being prepared even more important. But it's not just owners of older, less reliable vehicles that need to be on their guard this winter - even newer cars which are problem free for the rest of the year can experience issues when faced with extreme winter conditions. So if your car 'fails to proceed', as Rolls-Royce used to say, stay calm and stay safe. Here are some tips on what to do.

Safety first

Snow, ice, rain and the early dark are all elements which can make breaking down on the road even more dangerous. So if your car splutters to a halt or starts running erratically, your first priority is to ensure your own personal safety. Pull off the road if you can, whether into a lay-by or onto the motorway hard shoulder, or as far to the side of the road as possible, and illuminate your hazard lights. Use your side lights as well if it is dark and visibility is poor.

On a busy road, you are safest outside your car - especially if you are stalled in a position where you could be hit by a fast-moving vehicle - but obviously, you may not always feel safe to leave your car, particularly on a lonely road at night-time. If you decide to stay inside, move across to the passenger seat (or the furthest seat away from the traffic); if you do get out, do not open your doors in the direction of the traffic. One of the largest risks to you is being struck by other traffic, so it makes sense to stay inside your vehicle only if you feel threatened. The Institute of Advanced Motorists says that around 250 people are injured each year on the hard shoulder following a breakdown.

If you have a reflective jacket or high-visibility vest in your car (a legal requirement in some European countries) then wear it - or something brightly-coloured, if possible. Do not place a warning triangle behind your car if you are on the motorway, but on a slower-moving road, you should put one 45ft behind your car if it is safe to do so. Only once you have put yourself in the safest place possible should you start to assess the problem and how you deal with it. Remember that while you may be capable of tasks such as changing a wheel, for example, in a dangerous roadside situation, particularly in bad weather, a professional will be able to do it more quickly and will have all the necessary tools to hand. Do not attempt any repairs or wheel-changing yourself on the motorway hard shoulder.

Guard against problems

The good news is that many roadside emergencies can be easily avoidable. If your car is well-maintained and it has been serviced to schedule, then it will be at lower risk of an unexpected problem. Keep an eye on any irritating niggles and don't ignore dashboard warning lights, this can help prevent sudden failures. Also make sure your brakes, wipers, lights and all electrical functions are working correctly, and regularly check your oil levels and other vital fluids.

Common problems

The most common cause of call-outs in winter months is said to be flat car batteries, with other problems being unmaintained tyres, cracked radiators and damaged windscreen wiper blades. These problems can easily be avoided by carrying out regular checks and preparing your car in advance of the bad winter weather. To help avoid punctures, make sure your tyres are inflated to the correct pressure, have no splits, lumps or bulges in their sidewalls and are well within the legal limits for tread depth.

Another common issue is even more avoidable: running out of fuel accounts for 19 per cent of breakdowns, reports the Highways Agency. Don't ignore the low fuel light, and allow for delays and heavy fuel consumption in stop-start traffic. And take care when refuelling - 150,000 British drivers mistakenly put petrol into their diesel car, or vice versa, each year.

If the worst does happen, it's important that you're prepared. The Highway Agency suggests that you should always carry the following items in your car in the event of a winter breakdown: de-icer, ice scraper, torch, warm clothing and a blanket, boots, first aid kit, jump leads, a shovel, a warm drink, emergency food and a fully charged mobile phone and charger. This emergency kit can help you on your way should the weather take a sudden turn for the worst, or at least help make sure you're more comfortable when waiting for help. Another way to help ensure you're prepared should your car let you down, is having appropriate breakdown cover in place. This type of cover can help to make sure you receive on road assistance to get you home again, or to take your car to a garage for repair. Carry the number of your chosen service in your car, and on long journeys, make sure that your mobile phone is fully charged just in case. Breakdown cover is generally offered as an optional extra when purchasing your car insurance policy.