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How to avoid a breakdown on the side of a motorway

17 Jun 2013 at 13:18

With the summer holidays approaching, and hopefully a summer packed full of fair weather, plenty of families will be making weekend road trips to frequented holiday destinations.

But family expeditions like this can put greater strain on a car’s components, sometimes leading to failures when you least want or expect them.

Here’s how to avoid being left stranded on the hard shoulder with your bonnet up as the world whizzes on by.

Check coolant levels

If it’s hot and you’re working your car hard – either by travelling at motorway speeds, or sitting stationary in traffic with the engine running – the vehicle will be working double-time to cool itself.

If you don’t have enough coolant, it means your car could overheat, causing a breakdown.

Find you car’s coolant expansion tank – usually marked with an exclamation mark on the top of the cap (refer to your manufacturers handbook for further details)  – and ensure the level is above the ‘Min’ minimum line. It’s also worth making sure the concentration of anti-freeze is right, too. When topping up ensure you use solution strength of 50/50 anti-freeze to water to conform with manufactures requirements. Knowing how unpredictable the British weather is, you wouldn’t want the coolant to freeze inside your engine, potentially causing expensive damage, following a cold snap.

Check brake pads and discs

Apart from being the number one safety item on your car, your brakes have to work harder in summer if it’s hotter outside. Winding roads down to the beach or the twisty downhill stretches of a mountain pass will place extra load on your car’s braking system, with higher outside temperatures meaning cooling the discs and pads can be more difficult.   

Over heated brakes will cause the brakes to become less efficient, use the gearbox to slow down allowing them to cool.

The better condition your vehicle’s brakes are in, the less likely you will be to have a mechanical failure when it comes to stopping. You wouldn’t want to hit the brakes on a motorway to find there’s nothing there to halt you…

Keep your air conditioning in good shape

If your car is fitted with air conditioning, it’s likely to get more use during the summer months and over the holidays.

Flying along on the motorway asking the ventilation system to cool your car is a difficult task. It’s therefore important to make sure the special gas in the air conditioning system is topped up and at the right pressure, as well as replacing compressor belts at the right intervals to avoid failures.

If it breaks, it could leave you stranded at the side of the road, as they often also power other features on the car needed to keep you on the move. General maintenance can avoid these sorts of problems.

Check tyre tread and pressures

Apart from having a legal implication, keeping your tyres’ tread depth above the minimum 1.6mm means you’ll stop better.

It’s vitally important that they’re at the right pressure, too, as extended periods of 70mph cruising puts higher loads on the rubber than when driving around town.

Ensure the pressures are within tolerances in the manufacturer’s handbook, and if they’re looking a bit lifeless, consider replacing them before your journey. It could avoid a tyre failure resulting in you and your family stranded on a grassy bank at the side of a motorway, or even worse, involved in a crash.

Check the engine oil level

Lack of oil can cause a higher wear rate within the engine or worse still the engine to fail requiring an expensive repair. Most cars have a dip stick to test the oil level, however, some cars allow the oil level to be check by the driver’s instruments. The manufacturer’s handbook will give details of the checking procedure and the correct grade of oil to use.

Keep an eye on the fuel gauge

It sounds simple, but keeping an eye on your vehicle’s fuel gauge can keep you out of trouble. Don’t try and be smart by pushing it to the next services if your fuel warning light is on.

In a diesel vehicle, if it runs out of fuel, it means the whole system has to be bled of any air before it’ll run properly again. Apart from delaying you and putting you at risk by losing power on the motorway, it can be a costly expense to fix.

Take out breakdown cover

No matter how well prepared you are, the worst can sometimes happen without warning. We know how easy it is to misfuel your car, or to overlook one simple factor that can cause a very large potential headache further down the line. By taking out car breakdown cover you can be rest assured you'll be in safe hands.

Have you had a breakdown in the past? What was the cause? Could planning ahead have prevented it?

We want to hear from you and about your experiences to help other RAC members. Let us know on Twitter @RAC_Breakdown, or search Facebook for ‘RAC’ and join in with the discussion on the best ways to prevent a motorway breakdown.