Accidents and breakdowns: how to stay safe and calm when the unexpected happens

When the worst happens, simple errors can exacerbate a situation. That’s why we’ve partnered with Vitality Car Insurance to bring you this comprehensive guide...


Since 1907, Scouts have lived by the motto: “Be prepared”. The same applies when it comes to driving. Every year over 200,000 British motorists find themselves stranded at the side of motorways due to breakdowns[1], while police attended over 93,000 accidents in 2021 alone[2].

The reality is, most of us aren’t fully prepared to deal with an accident or breakdown. And, when the unexpected strikes, and stress and adrenaline is running high, it’s easy to make mistakes that could make things worse – either adding hassle and taking up more of your time, or costing you more money to solve the problem.

So, in honour of Road Safety Week – What Car? has partnered with Vitality Car Insurance to bring you a comprehensive guide on how to stay safe and calm in the event of a breakdown or accident.

Like us, Vitality Car Insurance thinks that safe, good driving deserves to be recognised, as Andrew Webb, Managing Director for Vitality Car, explains: “At Vitality, we are committed to making roads safer by combining the latest technology with rewards, such as monthly cashback, to encourage people to drive well with our car insurance. By doing this, we are unlocking significant value for customers and taking steps to make our roads safer and prevent accidents.”

Vitality’s new type of car insurance actively rewards you for the days you drive well – and even for the days you don’t drive at all. This is all done through Vitality's sensor and app, which all adds up to regular rewards and up to 25 per cent cashback per month based on your premium – that’s £117 a year for most of us. Terms apply.

Learn more about Vitality car insurance

Car emergency kit

Always carry essential emergency kit

Before you set off on any journey, long or short, it’s important to always carry essentials in your car that could keep you safe – or even save your life – in the event of an accident or breakdown. You should always have: a jacket, sturdy all-weather boots, water, non-perishable snacks, a torch, a high-visibility vest and a warning triangle (both of which are legal requirements in Europe), blanket, a first-aid kit and a road atlas in case your sat-nav and phone fail.

Vitality’s sensor and app also acts as an essential piece of kit when it comes to accidents. If the sensor detects you’ve had a crash, you’ll get an alert on your phone asking to confirm whether you’re OK. If you don’t respond within a certain amount of time, Vitality will get help to your location as quickly as possible.

Car crash

Don’t panic

When trouble does strike, it’s easy to get flustered: especially in the immediate aftermath of an accident when adrenaline, stress and shock really come into play, preventing people from thinking clearly. But, in any emergency, it’s important to remain as calm as possible.

Make sure to take deep breaths and don’t lose your temper with anyone else involved – whether fellow passengers or other road users. Anger combined with shock and adrenaline could result in nasty confrontations, and people can be unpredictable when in a state of panic. Take stock of what’s happening around you and keep a cool head.


Get to a safe place

Obviously, if you’ve been involved in a serious accident, you should stop the car as soon as possible, switch the engine off straight away and put the hazard lights on. First, so you can check the condition of fellow road users, record details of the incident for insurance purposes and exchange details. Also, leaving the scene of an accident is a criminal offence.

In the event of an accident or breakdown where your car can still be safely driven, it’s crucial to get out of the flow of traffic and pull over in a safe place as quickly and carefully as possible.

If you’re on a normal motorway, pull off at the next exit if you can get there safely. If you can’t make it, pull onto the hard shoulder, park as far left as possible, turn your wheels to the left (to prevent rolling backwards) and stick your hazard lights on. If it’s dark, it’s worth leaving your side lights on to make you more visible.

If you’re on a smart motorway, you should also aim for the nearest exit. If that’s not possible, head for the closest emergency refuge area (ERA). In the ERA, you’ll see markings on the floor aligned with the emergency telephone. Make sure to park here, so that recovery vehicles have room to park on either side.

If the worst happens and you’re forced to stop in a live lane of traffic, try to get to the left-most lane and park as far left as possible. Put your hazard lights on immediately and get out if it’s safe to do so. If you can’t get to the left-most lane and it isn’t safe to get out, put your hazards on, keep your seatbelt on and dial 999.

If you’re on an A-road or dual carriageway, you should once again aim for the nearest exit or turn off. If you can't, pull over as far left as possible and stick your hazards on. But be careful of soft verges, you don’t want to roll into a ditch.

Once you're stopped in a safe place, pop on your high-vis, deploy your warning triangle at least 45m, or around 10 car lengths, behind your car (do not do this on motorways), and find a safe place to stand away from your car, preferably behind a barrier. Do not return to your car unless you really need to, and never walk on, or near, motorways.

Car door

Take care when getting out of the vehicle

As we've suggested, you should always get out of your car and as far away from it – and the flow of traffic – as you can, in as quick and safe a manner as possible. But don't just leap out as soon as your car has stopped moving, you don't want to step out into live traffic.

Check which side of the vehicle is safest to avoid the flow of traffic, even if it means getting out through the left-hand doors. Remaining in your car could put you and your passengers at risk if it’s struck by another vehicle.

Car crash

Check for injuries

Even minor accidents can result in injuries like whiplash, cuts or bruises. Check yourself and your passengers thoroughly before doing anything else. If you suspect someone is hurt, call an ambulance immediately and get yourself to a safe place away from the traffic.

Car crash

Call the emergency services, if you’re in any doubt

There are certain situations in the aftermath of a breakdown or accident in which you should call the emergency services immediately. If the road is blocked, the other driver leaves the scene or causes a confrontation, or if you suspect the other driver could be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, call the police. 

If you’ve stopped in an ERA on a smart motorway, it’s crucial that you use the SOS telephone to contact the Regional Call Centre. They’ll contact a recovery service to get help out to you as soon as possible. It’s also wise to contact a family member or friend to inform them where you are and what’s happened.

If you’re unsure whether your car is safe to drive, wait for a professional opinion from the police or the driver of the recovery vehicle – you don’t want to risk another accident.

Car crash

Record every detail, and take plenty of pictures

If you’re involved in an accident, you’ll need to exchange details with everyone including other drivers, passengers and witnesses. You should aim to get the following:

  • Details of the incident including when it happened, road conditions and damage to your car

  • Plenty of pictures and videos of the damage and surroundings (and remember, if you have a dashcam make sure to retrieve the footage). Here is our list of the best dash cams to buy today.

  • Details of anyone involved including passengers and witnesses: home address, email, phone number, and insurance provider

  • Registration numbers along with make, model, year and colour of all vehicles involved

  • A crime reference number, if applicable (theft, fire and vandalism)

  • Find who owns the other vehicle(s) involved (it's not always the driver)

  • If a foreign lorry is involved, get the licence plate numbers of both the lorry and trailer (sometimes they’re different)

It’s worth giving the numbers you’re given a ring at the scene, just to make sure there are no mistakes. You should also avoid entering into any discussions about who’s to blame – leave that to your car insurance company.

Doing due diligence is also a good move, even if no-one else is involved in an accident. For example, if your car has been damaged on on-road parking or in a public car park, record all the details of the incident to help ensure a quick, smooth insurance claim (and to potentially prove you’re not at fault). Equally, if you caused damage to private property or a parked car, you should leave your details – honesty is always the best policy.

Motorway traffic

Rejoining traffic

If your car is in fact safe to drive, and you feel up to it, don’t let the recent breakdown or accident distract you from basic road safety. If you’re rejoining from the hard shoulder, build up speed before merging – exactly as you’d do from a slip-road – and watch out for other stationary vehicles at the side of the road.

If you’re rejoining from an ERA on a smart motorway, the driver of the recovery vehicle will use the SOS phone to contact the Regional Call Centre to get the lane closed for you. This is because there isn’t enough room to build up speed in an ERA. Never leave an ERA unless Highways National or the driver of your recovery vehicle has said it is safe to do so.

So, if you're ever unfortunate enough to experience an accident or breakdown, stick to these tips and you're sure to stay safe and calm.

Learn more about Vitality car insurance