Wisconsin Department of Transportation

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What to do if your vehicle breaks down on the highway

If your vehicle runs out of gas, has a flat tire or has a mechanical breakdown while youíre driving on the highway, itís natural to feel anxious, frustrated or even scared. Despite this stress, you can protect yourself, your passengers, and other motorists if you stay calm and make safety-conscious decisions. The State Patrol offers the following advice:

  • At the first sign of trouble, gently take your foot off the accelerator. Donít brake hard or suddenly. Carefully steer your vehicle to the far right-side of the highway while keeping your eye on traffic and using your turn signals to indicate your intentions. Stop your vehicle as far away from traffic as you can. Donít stop your vehicle in a traffic lane.
  • If you are on an Interstate or other heavily traveled highway, try to exit if at all possible. If you have a flat tire, itís often wiser to risk damage to the wheel rim than to try to change it on the side of a busy highway where you might be hit by fast-moving vehicles.
  • If you cannot exit off the highway, be absolutely certain traffic conditions allow you to change a tire or make repairs safely. Remain alert to the traffic around you. While outside your vehicle, avoid turning your back toward oncoming traffic. As an emergency precaution, look for a way to quickly get out of the path of an impaired or distracted driver. If you have passengers, have one of them observe traffic to warn you of possible dangers.
  • Never assume that the driver of another vehicle can see you, so make your vehicle as visible and conspicuous as possible. Reflective triangles and flares provide an effective warning to other motorists. At the very least, use your emergency flashers, and if itís dark, turn on the interior dome light. Raise your hood and tie something white to an antenna or hang it out the window so law enforcement officers know you need help.
  • If your vehicle is safely away from traffic, wait inside the vehicle with the doors locked and safety belts buckled. There is protection inside your vehicle - but none outside of it. Use your cell phone to call for help, such as a tow truck or roadside assistance. If a stranger stops to offer help, open the window slightly to talk but donít open the doors.
  • It is extremely dangerous to walk along a busy highway especially during bad weather conditions. You should never try to cross multiple lanes of a high-speed highway. However, if you can safely walk to a gas station or other location to get assistance you should exit your vehicle on the right-side away from traffic and walk on the right-side of the roadway. If possible, use guard-rails as protective barriers between you and traffic while you walk.
  • Law enforcement officers routinely patrol most major highways and will help if your vehicle breaks down or youíre stranded in bad weather. Freeway service patrols operate on the Beltline in Madison, I-94 in the Milwaukee area and in some interstate work zones to assist motorists in disabled vehicles.

Questions about the content of this page:
Steve Olson, steve.olson@dot.wi.gov

Last modified: March 28, 2011

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