Driver advice: vehicle maintenance and breakdowns

Drivers can pledge to – choose the safest vehicle possible and ensure it’s well maintained.

Vehicle maintenance

Proper vehicle maintenance is essential to keep yourself and others safe on the road. In 2013, 42 people were killed in crashes caused by vehicle defects, with hundreds seriously injured[i]. If you drive, you are operating a fast-moving piece of heavy machinery that needs to be kept in the safest possible condition.

Good maintenance can save you money as well as avoiding breakdowns or potentially devastating crashes. Badly-inflated tyres can mean you use more petrol, while putting off minor repairs can make them far more costly in the long-run.

You should carry out regular‘walk-round’ checks of your vehicle, once a week and before any long journeys, which need only take a few minutes. The main things you should look out for are:

  • tyre tread wear. Look out for tread wear indicator bars on tyres – small bumps in the main grooves which indicate the minimum tread. Change your tyres well before your tread gets to the legal minimum (1.6mm in the UK). Brake recommends replacing at 3mm, as tyres can be dangerous in wet conditions with less than this. If you drive with tyres worn down to below the legal limit, you could face three penalty points and a £2,500 fine, or it could cause a deadly crash.breakdownpics
  • tyre pressure. Buy a hand-held tyre pressure gauge and check the pressure weekly, when the tyres are cold. The correct pressure will be written in your vehicle’s handbook.
  • general tyre condition. Check for cracks, bulges or bubbles on the sides of your tyres. These are signs that the tyre is damaged and at risk of blowing out. If you see any of these, get the tyre checked by a professional, and replaced if necessary.
  • lights are working. Check lights are clean and bulbs aren’t blown (reflect against a wall, or ask a friend to help).
  • oil, water and fluids. Check oil and water levels, and other fluids such as power steering, windscreen washer and brake fluid, are well above minimum levels.
  • wiper blades. Check they are in full working order and replace if worn.
  • wheel fixings. Check wheels and wheel fixings for defects, including loose nuts.

If you drive a commercial or specialist vehicle, there may be additional checks you should make: check with your employer or consult your handbook.

As setting off and while on your journey, look out for:

  • problems with or noises from your brakes. Brakes usually make a noise when worn, but if you notice any problem with them, get them checked immediately by a professional mechanic. It’s a good idea to test brakes weekly and at the start of long journeys, following your walk-round checks, by applying them gently while driving very slowly on a flat, empty stretch;
  • warning lights on your dashboard;
  • excess noise or smoke from the exhaust;
  • smoke from under the bonnet;
  • fluid leaking from under the vehicle;
  • smell of hot electrics, fuel, or a burning smell;
  • unusual sounds from the engine;
  • a pulling sensation from the steering.

If you have any suspicion at all there’s a problem with your vehicle, take it to a garage immediately – putting it off could cost you cash, result in a breakdown, or worse, lead to a serious crash.

Professional servicing

mechanicDon’t try to fix safety-critical components yourself. Always use a qualified mechanic to work on your vehicle. Make sure you get your annual MOT and your vehicle is serviced in line with your vehicle handbook.

If you’re driving an employer’s vehicle, speak to them about who is maintaining it and when it was last checked. Ask your employer to ensure it is maintained in line with the vehicle handbook. Encourage them to make use of Brake’s guidance for companies on fleet safety (see www.brakepro.org). 

Just because a vehicle has passed an annual test or been serviced, it doesn’t mean it will be safe until the next service. A brake pad (the material that keeps your brakes working) may be only just above legal now, and worn out and dangerous well before your next service. Talk to your garage about the level of wear on brake pads and tyres, and any other problems your vehicle might experience in the coming months, so you know if you should pay them a visit between services.

Faulty batteries are one of the biggest causes of breakdowns, so get it tested, particularly before cold weather sets in. Many garages offer free checks.

Choosing the safest vehicle

Buy the safest, most reliable vehicle you can. To find out the safest car models, visit Euro NCAP which tests and rates them.Before buying a second-hand vehicle, get it checked over by an independent, qualified and experienced mechanic. It’s better to pay for a mechanic than buy a car that isn’t safe. See our factsheet on choosing safer vehicles for more information.

Breakdown advice

Breaking down on the road can be a frustrating, unpleasant, and sometimes dangerous and scary, experience. Every year, people are killed or seriously injured while stopped on the roadside, but many drivers don’t know how to keep safe in the event of a breakdown.

Motorway breakdowns

In a breakdown situation, the most important thing for drivers to consider is the safety of themselves and other road users, particularly on high speed roads like motorways. Hard shoulders are extremely dangerous places – one in 11 motorway deaths involve a vehicle on, entering or leaving the hard shoulder[ii].

If your vehicle develops a problem on the motorway:Motorway

  • if your car develops a fault but you can continue driving, leave the motorway at the next available exit and stop at the service area;
  • if the problem requires you to stop immediately, pull onto the hard shoulder and stop as far away from the traffic as you can, with the wheels turned to the left, if possible next to an emergency phone;
  • never use a warning triangle on the hard shoulder of the motorway, as walking along the hard shoulder to place a warning triangle puts you at risk of being hit;
  • never sit in your vehicle on the hard shoulder, even if the weather is bad. This is dangerous as you are at risk of being struck from behind at high speed;
  • put on your hazard lights and get out on the left hand side, and wait on the verge, well away from traffic;
  • anybody who is unable to leave the vehicle, for example someone with mobility issues, should wait inside the vehicle with their seatbelt securely fastened.

Never be tempted to try and fix your vehicle on the hard shoulder yourself – this is dangerous. Call for help instead, using an emergency phone if one is accessible without walking along the hard shoulder. These connect directly to the police control centre, and are numbered so that you can easily be located. Blue and white marker posts show the direction to the nearest phone.

Using the hard shoulder is legally permitted in only three instances: in a breakdown, an emergency, or if being pulled over by the police. Making a phone call, taking a toilet break or reading a map are not acceptable reasons to stop in the hard shoulder.

Breakdowns on any other type of road

If you breakdown somewhere other than the motorway, follow these guidelines to keep as safe as possible:
hazardlights

  • if it is possible, avoid stopping in a dangerous place, such as on a roundabout, on a corner or near a brow. If you can safely keep driving for a short distance, drop your speed, use your hazard lights and try to pull off the road completely or in a location where you’re clearly visible;
  • if you have to stop on a road, switch your hazard lights on. Only display an emergency triangle at least 45 metres behind your vehicle if it is safe for you to do so. Do not put yourself in a risky situation in putting out the triangle, and never use one on the hard shoulder of a motorway;
  • do not attempt to fix your vehicle yourself at the roadside. Call a breakdown service;
  • switch your engine off and stand as far away from the road as possible so you are not close to passing traffic;
  • if you are involved in a crash that is serious, obstructs the road, or involves injuries, call the emergency services as soon as possible. If you have first aid training, provide appropriate, immediate help to anyone who is hurt.

Make sure you are prepared in case you breakdown by:

  • carrying a mobile phone so that you can call for assistance, but on the motorway use a roadside phone if possible;
  • carrying a map so you can easily explain where you are when calling for assistance. You can use a map app on your phone, but you may not have signal if you breakdown somewhere remote;
  • keeping an emergency kit in your car, which should have a torch, a warning triangle, warm clothes and a reflective jacket or vest.

 Page updated June 2015