Handling Roadside Emergencies: 13 Skills Every Driver Should Know

gray BMW wheel

You’ve got everything set for that road trip, out-of-state visit or vacation. Although you may have prepared for weeks, you can only be so ready for smoke pouring from the exhaust, a cracked windshield, a flat tire or a dead battery. These setbacks can be pretty frustrating, and now you have to find a trustworthy mechanic, far from home.

Or do you?

In nearly all cases we recommend consulting a trained, trustworthy mechanic, but if you’re in a pinch: we’ve put together a comprehensive and detailed list of 13 common car problems may be able fix yourself.

 

DIY Repairs: The Basics

Changing a Flat Tire

One of the most common car problems that drivers experience by far is a flat tire. Sometimes, the flat is just a matter of a leaking valve stem, Auto Adventure Repair and Service notes. Whether your tire deflates slowly or suddenly in a highway blowout, the first thing to do is stay calm.

Kate and Brett McKay of The Art of Manliness point out that you only need four things to fix a flat:

  • Lug wrench
  • Jack
  • Spare tire
  • Brick

First, park your car and make sure it isn’t moving. It should be away from busy roads on a level street without bumps or inclines. Place the brick behind the healthy tire opposite the dead one to keep the car from rolling. Don’t forget to engage your emergency brake, too.

Remove the hubcap, behind which you’ll see the lug nuts. Use your wrench to release them slightly, making sure to keep the nuts attached to your tires at this time. When your car is secure and the lug nuts are exposed, situate your jack beneath the car body. While the positioning for this could vary, the jack should be against the car with no risk of falling. Lift your vehicle to reach the wheels.

Only once you’re ready to remove the flat tire should the lug nuts come off. Without these, you can easily get the wheel off the vehicle so you can replace it with a new one. Make sure that the old tire is on its side, then dispose of it. Put the new tire on the car and secure the lug nuts.

The Art of Manliness notes that the nuts should be tightened on alternating opposite sides, so tires with five lug nuts would be tightened following a star shape pattern, starting at the top, moving diagonally lower and so on. Once you release the jack and the car is on the ground, give the lug nuts a second look and maybe even another tightening with the wrench.

 

Jumping a Dead Battery

You had pulled over to check out that great old-fashioned diner you’d seen on a television show, and when you came back to your car an hour later, your battery was completely drained. As long as you have some jumper cables and someone else on site with a car, you can get back on the road.

As Dani Kawell of Mike’s Garage notes, “using jumper cables can be dangerous, so always follow the instructions provided in the packaging or have another experienced vehicle owner teach you this essential skill.”

Keep cables intact and unbent at all times to prevent accidental shocks. Make sure that the second car parks with its front hood near your vehicle. Under each hood, you will find terminals marked negative and positive, typically denoted with a minus or plus sign. Once you find these, jump the dead battery by:

  • First making sure both vehicles are OFF.
  • Connecting the positive (typically red) cables to both positive terminals, starting with the dead battery first.
  • Connecting the negative (typically black) cable to the negative terminal on the battery of the car that is providing the jump.
  • Connecting the other end of the negative cable to an unpainted metal surface elsewhere under the hood of the car that is being jumped (but away from the battery).
  • Letting the battery charge for at least five minutes.

After five minutes, see whether the car starts. If it doesn’t, let it charge for a few more minutes and try again. Once you can start the car without issue, make sure to retrieve all cables in this order:

  • Start with the grounded end of the negative cable clamped to the unpainted metal surface.
  • Move on to the negative terminal of the car that provided the jump.
  • Continue to the positive terminal of the car that provided the jump.
  • End with the positive terminal of the car that received the jump.

 

Fixing a Cracked Windshield

It can happen while off-roading or just driving around your neighborhood: Someone’s tire kicks up a small rock that hits your windshield, producing a minute, almost invisible crack. As the days roll by, you notice this crack growing larger, branching out further and further along the glass.

As Insurance Zebra notes, ignoring this issue can be deadly for a few reasons, particularly as “windshields actually hold airbags in place, and if they’re damaged, the airbags might not deploy correctly (or at all).” Besides that, car glass is also crucial to the structure of a vehicle, and if the windshield gives way, the roof is much more vulnerable to collapsing from the impact of a crash.

Depending on the severity of the crack, the repair solution varies. If you catch the break in the beginning stages, you can use a glass repair kit (like this one by RainX) to buff it out. These kits tend to include:

  • A razor blade
  • Curing strips
  • Resin or putty

In the case of the RainX kit, the resin can actually reinforce the glass. However, you do have to act fast to prevent the crack from spreading. As RainX notes on its website, “The kit works best on round damage not more than one inch in diameter, and cracks not longer than 12 inches.” If your break is more severe, you need to see a mechanic or windshield replacement specialist.

man fixing red car

 

Diagnosing Fuel Pump Problems

The check engine light can send some people into a panic — understandable when you’re on the road 500 miles from home. But as Ray Weatherspoon Auto notes, “In many cases, engine problems are caused by simple things like a loose gas cap or a dirty air filter.”

Often, the fuel pump is to blame. As Tim Wong from FCP Euro says, you’ll typically notice the following when a fuel pump has problems:

  • Strange whining sounds
  • Difficulty accelerating
  • Car won’t start, or dies shortly after starting

In such cases, you can narrow down the culprit to your fuel pump by disconnecting your fuel pressure sensor, Wong recommends. “This will most likely cause a check engine light in the car, but the ECU will assume a worst case scenario and order the fuel pump to run at full pressure. If your car runs better without the sensor, then you’ve just found your problem.”

Anthony Peacock, also at FCP Euro, writes in another post that numerous everyday driving situations can cause the fuel pump to go kaput, such as:

  • Never checking the health of the pump
  • Degradation over the years
  • Using poor quality fuel
  • Letting the car run out of gas too often

Peacock recommends being aware of these fuel pump failure causes and picking up a fuel pump insert replacement kit.

 

Opening a Car Door With Malfunctioning Keyless Entry

If your car, like many newer models, has keyless entry, you don’t have to worry about issues that older cars do such as gunk in the keyhole or a failed lock. However, that doesn’t always mean that you’re in the clear. If you’re having a tough time getting into your vehicle, the problem may be your key fob’s battery. Enlighten Me suggests that you try the following:

  • Change the key fob’s battery first. It should be tiny and circular, not unlike a watch battery.
  • If that doesn’t help, find your backup key fob and try that. If this one works fine but the original fob doesn’t (even with a fresh battery), the device’s memory may have been erased. Reconfigure it by following these steps:
    • Get in your car and put your key fob in your vehicle’s ignition.
    • Keep turning the key, but make sure that the car’s not on.
    • The car should make a chiming sound once.
    • Go into the remote’s programming mode; you will hear the chiming noise again.
    • Take the key fob out and see whether the remote works.

Jessica Marie at Enki Village recommends a few approaches to try to rectify lock issues with older vehicles. Her first tip is simply to inspect the lock to see whether anything is in there. Sometimes, thick dirt can get lodged into the keyhole, preventing you from inserting the key.

If there’s no dirt and you are still unable to unlock the door, spray car lubricant into the door’s keyhole if it seems particularly rigid or if there’s something blocking the keyhole. Take your time trying to open the door, and keep spraying as necessary.

fixing flat

 

Handling Minor Roadside Emergencies

What to Do If You Run Out of Gas on the Highway

You could have sworn the tank was full before you left, but now the car’s chugging and sputtering. It doesn’t necessarily matter how or why you ran out of gas, just that you know what to do if it happens.

Car service Openbay offers these easy-to-remember suggestions:

  1. Pull over right away. If you’ve come to a full stop and don’t have enough gas to get off the road, put the car in neutral and once it’s safe to do so, push it to the side of the road. Use your hazard lights to signal that you need help.
  2. Figure out where you’re stalled by using your smartphone, some other connected mobile device or a map. You may have to get out of the car to take a better look at your surroundings, so if you have a passenger with you, let them stay back and wait for you to return. Don’t wander too far, though.
  3. Make sure that your phone battery is mostly charged. You don’t know how long that you could be waiting, but the last thing that you want is to deal with a dying or dead phone in the middle of an unnerving ordeal.
  4. Find gas, either at a local gas station that’s hopefully not too far from your car or from a motorist who may stop and offer to help.
  5. If all else fails, call roadside assistance or a towing company.

 

Dealing With an Overheated Engine

You might not be able to feel your engine temperatures skyrocket, but you can certainly see the effects, especially when plumes of smoke begin flooding from beneath the car’s hood. If you’re far from home, this sight can make you incredibly nervous. It’s important to take these steps:

  • You may be surprised by this, but it’s best to keep going. “One of the first things people do when their vehicle starts to overheat is pull over. …You need to keep your vehicle moving to prevent the car from continuing to overheat,” Signal Garage recommends.
  • Of course, that doesn’t mean you should never stop an overheating car. If you’ve never dealt with an overheating engine before and you’re nervous, don’t continue to drive that way. And if the smoke is getting worse, it’s time to get out of the vehicle.
  • “If you are in a stopped position and your vehicle’s temperature is creeping up, place your vehicle into park and rev the engine slightly,” Signal Garage writes. This isn’t just for showing off. Instead, you’re triggering the radiator and the water pump, and both provide coolant to the car.
  • Turn off the car’s air conditioning as soon as you see smoke. Although your air conditioner cools you and loved ones during your drives, having this on only makes the car and the engine work that much harder.

One of the contributing factors to an excessively warm engine is the coolant, or a lack thereof. As Viking Speed Shop explains, “The coolant, also referred to as antifreeze, mixture is 50% ‘coolant’ and 50% water in most cases, with the ‘coolant’ being a chemical called ethylene glycol.”

Ethylene glycol prevents the coolant from freezing while raising the upper temperatures that it can handle. The more ethylene glycol, the higher the boiling point.

There are generally two different kinds of car fans:

  • Electric fans that read the coolant temperature and react appropriately, and
  • Mechanical fans that use the radiator to sense coolant temperature.

If your fans are running too hard, the pressure measurements and coolant temperatures will both be through the roof. Follow the instructions above on dealing with an overheating engine to get the fans back down to normal levels.

 

Know The Main Reasons Your Tailpipe Is Smoking

And if you see smoke flowing from your car’s tailpipe? Tavarish at the Adequate Man blog notes that you may notice up to three different colors:

  • Black smoke is caused by an excessive amount of fuel. As Car Deal Page notes, sometimes the cylinder is the perfect place for air to combine with the fuel, producing what’s known as fuel that’s “running rich.” This is tougher to pass through the combustion chamber entirely, and with the leftover fuel in that chamber, the smoke will be quite black.
  • Blue smoke typically occurs if your exhaust gases combine with the oil in the car. Tavarish writes that the positive crankcase ventilation, or PCV, valve is most likely responsible. However, take a look at a detailed flowchart on the Adequate Man blog, which shows you what to do in each case.
  • White smoke occurs when the exhaust gases have too much water in them. This is one of the most normal smoke colors. Before you jump to conclusions, take a look at the consistency of the smoke. If it’s light and wispy enough, it could just very well be steam, which is totally normal. However, if you notice that the smoke seems thicker and doesn’t disappear on its own, then it’s likely an issue.

 

Stalling or Sluggishness When Driving

Vehicles can feel sluggish or outright stall out of nowhere, seemingly. This is especially frustrating, and often terrifying when it happens in traffic. It’s best to be proactive about your vehicle’s maintenance to avoid such situations. Speedy Auto Service offers a few tips for simply ensuring your car is running smoothly and less likely to stall out on the highway:

  • Make sure your fuel and air filters are tight. You might want to change these out every so often to keep the fuel intake system healthy. Too much fluid there can cause stalling.
  • Avoid driving through floods or large puddles. If you can’t the bottom, it’s best to go a different route. If you do expose the vehicle to too much water, Euro Car Service notes that you may experience engine hydrolock, where water floods your air intake system and can destroy the engine.
  • Check for leaks underneath your car when you park it. If you see these, they’re likely attributed to your vacuum system. The fluid lines may have been punctured or they just may need to be tightened. “If you notice the lines making a hissing sound while you are idling, it is an indication you may have a leak in your vacuum system,” Speedy Auto Service writes.

 

What to Do If You Lock Yourself Out of Your Car

It’s less likely in newer models with keyless entry, but if you have an older vehicle with a key that locks the doors, you’re always susceptible to locking your keys in the vehicle. It happens. Although you could always use a screwdriver or a wire hanger if you have one handy, Great Plains Autobody cautions that these tools “might also scratch your car, ruin electrical wires inside the door, or take too much time for you to perform.”

Don’t risk your car. Instead, if you’re still close to home, call a family member or neighbor with whom you’ve trusted a spare key. If you’re out on the road, you may have to call roadside assistance or a local towing company.

Here are a few things you can do to reduce the chance of locking yourself out of your own vehicle:

  1. Getting a spare key made at a locksmith, and always carry the spare with you. Don’t simply attach it to your key ring. Stash the spare in a separate pocket of your purse.
  2. Always have a spare key at home. Let a family member or a trusted friend or neighbor know the location to this extra. This is a good practice for a spare house key, as well.
  3. Great Plains Autobody suggests using that magnetic box to place your spare on your car’s undercarriage. “A little magnetic key box that sticks to the body or frame is best, but be sure to place it in an obscure and hard-to-reach area where it can’t jiggle loose or fall off.”

car engine

 

More Involved DIY Repairs

Switching out an Alternator Belt

Without your alternator belt, also called the serpentine belt, your car’s alternator, water pump, supercharger and power steering pump (among others) won’t work. As so many parts of the car are affected if this belt happens to malfunction or break, knowing how to fix it in a pinch is convenient.

Timberly Dinglas of Car Part Kings writes that you can identify a belt that needs replacing by looking at it and listening to it. You need a new alternator belt when:

  • Oil has spilled on the belt, slowing it down.
  • It makes squealing noises.
  • The belt is thinning and pieces are falling away.

Once you decide that you want to replace your serpentine belt, make sure you have these tools with you:

  • Wrench
  • Ratchet
  • Serpentine belt tool

Find your car’s tensioner pulley. This may be a bit tough because, as Dinglas notes, “You may need to remove the radiator or other parts of the vehicle to access the pulley.” Near the pulley, you’ll see the tensioner bolt. Use your wrench on this to relax the serpentine belt. From there, you can easily take the belt off and replace it. Double-check that it’s properly aligned to prevent more car trouble. Belts must be replaced every five years, so it’s good to have this skill now.

 

Plugging up a Radiator Hose

If you can’t see or hear a problem with your car, you may not even know that it’s there. However, as BlueDevil reminds us: “Neglecting leaks in your vehicle’s cooling system is one of the quickest ways to cause permanent damage to your engine.” If you aren’t in the market for a whole new car, look out for these danger signs, courtesy of Centralia Transmissions:

  • Coolant fluid puddles beneath your car; these can be pink, green, or yellow.
  • The engine often overheats.
  • The coolant always reads low.

Once you know you have a problem with your radiator hose, getting a new one installed won’t take too long. Buy a replacement hose and then get rid of excess coolant, feeding it through the old hose. “There should be a drain plug on the bottom of your radiator, usually on the driver’s side, or you can simply remove one end of the radiator hose,” BlueDevil advises.

From there, hook up the new hose where the old one was. Double-check the health of your band clamp, inspecting it for corrosion. If it’s old, you may want to change this out, too.

It’s also recommended that you thoroughly clean the cooling system with a radiator flush kit (available at most auto shops).

 

Changing Spark Plugs

Spark plugs are a crucial component to regular engine functioning. Shine Collision explains that you may need to change your spark plugs as soon as you hit 30,000 miles and certainly before you reach 100,000 miles.

Spark plugs can be worn down even sooner than 30,000 miles by such conditions as:

  • Oil leaks or gas leaks
  • Lack of maintenance
  • Engine trouble
  • Broken thermostat housing
  • Excessive temperatures
  • General wear and tear

As Jack’s Small Engines DIY states, replacing a spark plug is easier than you might have thought. Have these tools on hand:

  • Spark plug socket wrench
  • Spray-on plug cleaner
  • Wire brush
  • Spark plug gauge

Make sure to separate the plug from the lead, cleaning up this area as you do so. With your spark plug socket wrench, take the old spark plug out of the car. Grab your spray-on plug cleaner and a wire brush to get rid of any debris and buildup that may have accumulated on either end of the spark plug. Use your spark plug gauge to determine the distance between electrodes.

To install the new plug, connect your lead to the fresh spark plug. Jack’s Small Engines DIY also recommends that at some point you should check the plug’s electrodes. These should have a spacing of about 0.030 inches, but this number may vary.

 

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