Recovering from highway breakdowns
If your car quits mid-trip, pull safely off the road and apply last-ditch solutions
IT can happen to the best of us, no matter how new or expensive or well-maintained the vehicle we’re driving.
We’re cruising along without a care in the world and suddenly the checkengine light comes on, or a terrible noise starts emanating from under the car, or we simply start to slow down as we frantically scan the road ahead and traffic around us looking for a safe place to land.
As do-it-yourselfers, what can we handle on the roadside and what’s the safest way to proceed? First, get safely away from traffic. If Murphy’s Law is to apply (and it always seems to), we will be stranded at the most inconvenient time on the busiest multi-lane highway on the planet with the highest number of compact-eating trucks speeding in the right-hand lane (at night, during a storm).
The point is that unless you can get your vehicle a safe distance from traffic and in a highly visible location, you should not attempt any repairs or diagnosis, but instead should activate your vehicle’s four-way flashers, pop the hood to indicate a breakdown and get you and your passengers to a safe place while awaiting roadside assistance.
If you have a safety light or triangle, now would be the time to deploy it (to the rear of the vehicle, far enough back to provide suitable warning to approaching traffic).
If traffic is light and your vehicle is well removed from moving vehicles, staying in the car may be the safest thing to do, but if traffic is heavy and closer, you may be wiser to wait outside the vehicle.
Never stand behind or in front of your vehicle in circumstances such as this.
Turn your front wheels to the right to prevent the vehicle from being pushed into traffic in the event of a rear-end collision.
Here are some of the top reasons for roadside breakdowns, with a few tips on how to get things going again.
Failed battery: If you’ve pulled off the highway for a refuelling stop and went to restart the engine only to be greeted by a quiet click and nothing else when you turn the key, chances are pretty good the battery has failed.
Batteries, even the most expensive and advanced, are seldom good for much more than three or four Canadian winters.
What catches most people by surprise is that more batteries fail during the hottest days of summer than the coldest days of winter.
Most vehicles will run on their charging system after boosting, even though the battery is dead.
If you can beg or borrow a boost from a passing motorist, you can get back on the road to the nearest automotive retailer for a test and battery replacement if needed.
Batteries usually will give some advance warning of their approaching demise through a simple load test that most shops will do for a minimal fee. If you’re heading out for a trip with a three- or four-year-old battery, getting it tested before the tour can save you a lot of headaches.
Flat or damaged tire: This used to be a no-brainer if you had a spare tire, but many vehicles are coming without the familiar spare these days due to automakers trying to reduce on-board mass to improve fuel economy.
If you have a spare and you’re going to try to make the swap, make sure your vehicle and the jack are on firm, level ground.
Never plant a jack on gravel or soft surfaces. Check around for a piece of solid, flat wood or a concrete paver to place under the jack in these cases.
Loosen the wheel nuts before taking the weight off the wheel and never jack the vehicle any higher than you have to.
Keep an eye on the jack as the vehicle rises to ensure it isn’t tilting or leaning to the point of failure.
Those vehicles that don’t have spares usually will supply an electrical air compressor or an aerosol can of tire inflator/sealant.
Fuel problems: Running out of fuel is still high on the all-time list of vehicle breakdowns, and if your engine starts to sputter as you suddenly realize the gauge needle is headed for the basement, gently swerving the vehicle from side to side with the steering wheel may get you a few hundred more metres, as this will slosh any remaining fuel up to the fuel-pump pickup.
This can make the difference between landing in a safe roadside stop and being caught in a heavily travelled lane.
Older vehicles can experience fuelpump failures that will show almost the same symptoms as running out of fuel.
If the fuel pump has failed, the engine will crank without a hint of wanting to start, and if you open the hood, you won’t be greeted by a strong smell of fuel.
A lot of failed fuel pumps can be brought back to temporary life with a strong smack on the bottom of the tank.
It can dislodge the brushes on the electric fuel-pump motor when they’re stuck.
If you can reach the tank’s bottom, slap it hard several times with the palm of your hand, then try to restart the engine.
If you need a longer reach, a broom makes a handy persuader. If the vehicle starts, head immediately to the nearest service centre or at least to a safe place to wait for a tow.
Oil problems: If your vehicle’s engine comes to a halt because it ran out of oil, there is probably little you can do on the side of the road to get things going again.
If you are driving an oil-burner, you should have a few spare bottles in the trunk.
When engines were primarily made of cast iron, they might restart after a seizure caused by lack of oil after they were allowed to cool down and more oil was added. But with today’s extensive use of aluminum and lightweight alloys, it’s unlikely you’ll revive one on the side of the road.
Alternator/starter failures: A fuelinjected engine relies too much on electrical power to run very long with an alternator that’s not putting out any power.
The first symptom of failure is usually the battery warning symbol lighting up on the instrument panel.
When this happens, if your vehicle is still running, turn off all unnecessary electrical accessories and head to the nearest repair centre, highway exit or roadside stop.
When it does finally conk out, you can breathe some temporary life into it by recharging the battery with a boost or battery charger.
In good temperatures, this can take several hours and may only get you a short distance down the road.
If the starter has failed, usually indicated by a loud click and nothing else when the ignition key is turned, you might be able to coax one more start out of it by rapping it with a hammer.
If your vehicle is equipped with a manual transmission, you can always try to recruit enough burly volunteers to give you a push for a bump start.
Once the vehicle is rolling, with the transmission in first gear, clutch depressed and key in the run position, let the clutch pedal out suddenly to force the transmission to crank the engine.
Be polite and give your pushers some advance warning so they don’t end up flat on their faces.
Keep your car in tune and check it regularly to avoid being stuck by the roadside.