Breakdown from hell - a survival guide

By Phil Hanson

Even with GPS and reliable cars, it pays to pack some essentials.

We often take long-distance car travel too lightly and neglect to prepare for things that could go wrong. Photo / Supplied
We often take long-distance car travel too lightly and neglect to prepare for things that could go wrong. Photo / Supplied

The other day a family friend was recounting hours from hell, broken down at dusk far from the nearest dot of civilisation on the Taupo-Napier Highway.

To cut a long story of woe short, a van driver took her to Te Pohue, the AA was called from a landline and help duly arrived, the problem diagnosed as faulty wiring to the fuel pump.

The simple breakdown could have been more serious and nobody realised that more than the victim. "Trouble is, we take long-distance car travel too lightly," I said.

"When I was a lad, my parents used to plan for weeks a trip from, say, Auckland to Tauranga. They loaded the car with all the gear Civil Defence today wants you to keep on hand for a tsunami, just in case. Dad always had it serviced a few days before we left."

"You mean they had cars back then?"asked the friend, only half joking. Well yes, but before the Japanese invented the reliability that we now take for granted.

Don't just rely on having a cellphone when you travel. Murphy's Law dictates that any place you break down will be just out of reception, or that the phone's battery will go flat.

I told the friend there were certain things that she should carry in the car on a long trip, short of the full Civil Defence kit.

* An up-to-date map to help you identify your location to whoever's coming to help. This is even if you have sat-nav, which may not be working.

* Warm and waterproof clothing and gumboots in case the weather is bad, or turns bad, and you have to start walking, although staying in the car and waiting for a passing motorist is almost always preferable.

* Chocolate and a warm drink, in case you're stranded for some time. Not beer.

* A torch with fresh batteries, or a good wind-up torch. If it is dark, you may need to get out of the car to see what the problem is. And it's essential if you do have to walk at night.

* A first aid kit, as it is always best to be prepared. Stash a reflective jacket with it.

* A set of good jumper cables. If it's just a flat battery, a boost from a helpful passing vehicle should get you going. Make sure you know how to use them.

* A spare wheel. Yes, of course you'll probably have one, but check that it's in good condition, with adequate tread and tyre pressure.

* The tools to fit the above, in working condition. The jack's not much good if it is has seized.

When a breakdown occurs, get the vehicle off the road if possible and activate its hazard warning lights. If there's a danger the vehicle may be struck by other traffic, get everyone to a safe place.

This should be common sense, but don't stand between the vehicle and oncoming traffic.

If you're on a motorway and can't get to an exit, try to make it to near an emergency telephone. Pull on to the hard shoulder and stop as far to the left as possible, with the wheels turned to the left. Turn on the sidelights and hazard flashers.

Leave the vehicle by a left-hand door. Leave any animals inside or, in an emergency, under proper control on the verge.

Do not attempt even simple repairs. Leave it to the professionals who are trained to work in the danger zone.

Common breakdowns

Dead starter motors and batteries are two of the most common reasons for calling roadside assistance, although neither is likely to strand you in the middle of nowhere, unless you've stopped for a break.

Other common callouts include overheating, brake failure, or dire engine complaints like cutting-out, loss of power, surging and so on. Electrical problems, fuel pumps, terminal transmissions, worn-out clutches and broken differentials are also top trip-spoilers.

- NZ Herald

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