Motorway breakdowns – How to avoid being “that car” on the hard shoulder

Motorway BreakdownsYou might have been cruising along in the outside lane of the motorway, or perhaps crawling along in what seemed like an endless traffic jam. Maybe it was a baking hot day or much worse, pouring it down with rain. Whatever the scenario, I’m confident that at some point we’ve all looked across to the hard shoulder of a motorway to someone getting out of a broken-down car and thought “thank goodness that wasn’t me”. Or perhaps it was you, after all in the last year alone there have been a massive 182,181 motorway breakdowns or stoppages in Britain. That’s just shy of 500 per day, just on motorways. The figure appears in the latest edition of the Driving Instructions Association monthly magazine (which I’m sure you’ll agree is an essential read!). It cites that

Many motorway breakdowns are caused by driver carelessness or error, be that in driving terms or even simply maintaining and preparing their vehicle for travel.”

Of course, nobody wants their car to break down, especially on the side of the motorway – it’s a notoriously dangerous place (life expectancy is 30 minutes if you remain in the vehicle according to Police statistics). If as the report suggests, most breakdowns are avoidable – we thought it would be good to provide some information and basic checks for you to consider before you head out on your next journey and in particular, before you consider joining a motorway.

Fuel

First up let’s talk about fuel. It might seem like an obvious thing to check but in the last year, over 6,100 drivers were caught short with an empty tank on motorways. A further 475 misfuelled their vehicles, putting petrol in instead of diesel and vice versa. Part of the reason many drivers get caught out on the motorway is because of the large distances there can be between service stations. The target in the UK is to have service stations as a maximum, every 27 miles, however there are some motorways, where the stretch between one service area and the next is over 40 and that’s a big problem. Let’s imagine your low fuel indicator has just come on, about a mile after you passed a service station, then for some reason you’re distracted as the next one approaches and you miss it.  It could mean trying to cover well over 50 miles on an empty tank before you have your next chance to refuel on the motorway.  One option, if you do get stuck in this predicament and you don’t think you’ll make it to the next service area, is to leave the motorway at the next junction. Hopefully you’ll have a passenger in the car with you who can operate the satellite navigation system or go on their phone and identify where the nearest place is to fuel up. It’s worth noting though, that even the distance between junctions can be over 15 miles (the longest stretch between two junctions is between the M26 junction 2a and the M25 junction 6 which is 18.5 miles). Best practice then is to always make sure you have more than enough fuel to cover your motorway journey, before you join it. If you’re going to be on the motorway for hundreds of miles, you may need to fill up again on route. The Department of Transport recommends you take a break from driving at least every two hours so that’s a good opportunity to replenish the fuel tank as well as your stomach and your mind.

Tyres

Ok, now let’s talk about another of the basics – tyres. In the UK in the last year a massive 34,603 motorway breakdowns were due to tyre related incidents. That’s almost 100 every day. One can only imagine that most, if not all of these are due to punctures. With that in mind, you’re probably thinking that tyre related incidents are unavoidable, but that’s not necessarily the case.

Now it’s fairly common knowledge that the minimum legal tyre tread depth is 1.6mm but how many of us regularly check our tyres to make sure they still meet the minimum legal requirements? If I asked a room full of people, I’m not sure I would see many hands in the air. Below minimum tyre tread levels, or worse still, bald tyres, or tyres with bald spots, there is less of a barrier between the road and the inner tyre. Ask a highways maintenance employee and they will tell you that motorways are littered with all kinds of debris, each piece is a risk to your tyre. The lower your tyre tread and the thinner that rubber barrier is, the greater risk there is of debris puncturing your tyre.

Whilst you’re checking the depth of your tyre tread, it’s a good idea to check for other abnormalities too. Low mileage drivers, may find the depth of their tyre tread is not a risk, however the age of their tyres, due to them not wearing down, means the rubber has started to crack. The manufacturers recommended shelf life for most road tyres is 5 years. If you’re the owner of a low mileage, 2nd hand high performance car that only gets used a handful of times a year, your car could very likely be on the same set of tyres that it rolled off the forecourt with a decade or so ago. If that’s the case, there’s no time like the present to get down on your knees and give those tyres a thorough examination. Cracks on the sidewall occur because over time the oils and chemicals in the rubber compound gradually evaporate or break down due to over exposure to UV rays of the sun. If you find your tyres are cracking, you would do well to get them replaced.

And it’s not just cracks you need to be looking out for. Slow punctures are common place. In many cases, the cause of the slow puncture is still in the tyre, helping to partially plug the hole it’s created. Run your hands over the surface of your tyres and feel for small dents, lumps or other anomalies which might indicate a foreign object such as a nail or screw has somehow dug itself into your tyre. Another way you may realise this has happened is when you are driving along with the window down and you can hear a clicking sound coming from the wheel. This is where the foreign object is meeting the road as the wheel rotates. It’s likely that if you have a foreign object stuck in your tyre, your tyre will have begun to deflate, which in itself is a risk as this can have implications on how the car behaves, especially at speed or under braking.

Engine

The remainder of the 182,181 motorway breakdowns  last year are simply described as “other” in the report. Pull figures from recent AA, Green Flag and RAC Reports however and three common problems rise to the top.

  1. Cooling systems – This covers things like the fan, the radiator and the water pump. The simplest thing to check here is that your coolant levels are where they should be. Make sure you only add coolant when the engine is cold as this is a pressurised system.
  2. Alternator belt – Your alternator belt will occasionally need to be replaced. Depending on the manufacturer, the recommendations are anywhere between every 50,000 and 100,000 miles (or 5 to 7 years). If you’ve bought a second-hand car and are not sure when it was last replaced, take it in for a service and ask them to check.
  3. Oil – If you regularly park your car in the same place, it’s a good idea to periodically check the ground beneath where you park to see if there are any oil spots. An oil leak can happen for all manner of reasons and if it does, it’s best to get it fixed as early as possible.

Even without a noticeable oil leak, you might still find your car is getting through the stuff. If you’re finding your oil level warning light coming on more regularly than you think it should, it’s time to take it into the experts. At this point, it’s worth making a distinction between the oil pressure warning light and the oil level warning light. The oil pressure light will typically come on before you start the vehicle and go out once the engine has started. The oil level warning light however, is likely to remain on when the engine is running if the oil levels are low. Don’t ever be tempted to ignore an oil level warning light, from a motoring perspective it could be one of the costliest mistakes you ever make.

Fridays

On a much lighter note, for those of a superstitious nature – you might want to avoid travelling on a motorway on a Friday. Official Government figures show that more people have, on average broken down on a Friday in the last three years than on any other day of the week.  If you do find yourself involved with motorway breakdowns, get out of your vehicle on the hard shoulder as quickly as possible and move all your passengers to the otherside of the barrier and up the banking.  This is the safest place to wait for help to arrive.

If you’ve enjoyed this article and would like to learn more about improving your knowledge and skills behind the wheel, talk to us today or read about our Advanced Road Course. Here at CAT Driver Training, we offer personalised driver training courses for all abilities. We can be contacted on 01234 757 633 or via email at info@catdrivertraining.co.uk.

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