SAFE & SOUND: Keeping Kids Safe When The Car Breaks Down

By Nancy B
June 01, 2022

I still remember the day my car broke down as a young mom, with my three children in the back. It was one of those typical hot-n-steamy Virginia summer days. Trucks and cars were whizzing frightfully close to my minivan on the side of a busy 4-lane road. Fluid was spewing from the engine and I remember thinking- this is really bad. There was no driving to a gas station and no calling for help (this was before everyone carried cell phones- yes, there was a time). Questions raced through my mind: how can I get help safely? Should we stay in the car? How long will it take for help to arrive? It was nerve-wracking.

Our car insurance experts know traveling moms break down every day. So, I decided to find out what the smartest and safest roadside practices are. Who better to ask than folks with decades of experience in roadside troubles? Here’s what I wish I had known that day:

How to keep kids safe when the car breaks down

1. Keep Calm

Take a deep breath. If you’re calm, you’ll make better decisions and not only model great problem-solving to your kids but also diffuse any fears they may have! 

2. Get off the far as you can

The best place is a well-populated and well-lit one. Turn on your hazard lights and headlights- your goal is to make yourself as visible as possible. Make a note of your location with cross streets, landmarks, mile markers, or exit numbers if you’re on a highway. Send your location to a friend or family member.


If you can't get off the road, pull over as far as you can. This is key to your family's safety. You want to get your car as far away from moving traffic as possible. There’s a very real danger of getting hit by other drivers. Use soft shoulders or level ground and turn your wheels to the right. On roads with little or no shoulder, use side streets and parking lots, and driveways in rural areas.

3. Keep your seatbelts on

Even after you’ve pulled over, everyone should keep their seat belts on and keep your youngest children in their car seats! If you are super prepared and have an emergency car kit with flares and/or reflective triangles, they’ll come to good use now. If it's safe, put them out to alert other drivers. Then get back in and put your seatbelt back on.


To Stay in the car or get out

There’s no one right answer here. Exercise caution and follow your mom intuition. Our experts say it’s usually safer to stay in the car, especially with young children. Trying to keep it together on the side of a busy road with 4 children under the age of 6 or one really rambunctious 2-year-old is dangerous. The weather may be very hot like it was in my case, or frigid cold. Another person may have stopped leaving you feeling uneasy.

4. Assess the situation

If you’re well off the road stay put, lock the doors and, above all, be sure that everyone stays in their seat belts at all times and until help arrives. The only time it may be safer to leave your car is if you are unable to move it completely off the road. In that case, do two things:

  1. Get out using the right-side doors (or those closest to the side of the road you’re on) even if it means climbing over seats
  2. Take your kids far away from the road. If you’re on a highway, move behind any available barrier or up an embankment.

5. Call for help

Dialing 911 will dispatch help from VA State Police and VDOT’s 511 emergency roadside assistance team if you’re on a major Virginia interstate.  Tell the dispatchers that you have young children with you and if you are in a remote area or feel unsafe.

Now You Wait

*Warning: Waiting for help likely will result in squirming, whining, may be even crying to get out of the seat.



SO REMEMBER: Keeping you and your kids belted in is the safest thing you can do for them. This is when it’s good to have that emergency car kit including extra water bottles, blankets for warmth, your kids’ favorite snacks, and even a fun distracting game to play.

Here are a couple more suggestions:

Be sure to have an emergency car kit at all times. According to the National Safety Council, emergency supply kits should include:
  • A properly inflated spare tire, wheel wrench, and tripod jack
  • Jumper cables
  • Tool kit and/or a multipurpose utility tool
  • Flashlight and extra batteries
  • Reflective triangles and brightly colored cloth to make your vehicle more visible
  • Compass
  • First aid kit with gauze, tape, bandages, antibiotic ointment, aspirin, a blanket, non-latex gloves, scissors, hydrocortisone, thermometer, tweezers, and instant cold compress
  • Nonperishable, high-energy foods, such as unsalted nuts, dried fruits, and hard candy
  • Drinking water
  • Reflective vest in case you need to walk to get help
  • Car charger for your cell phone
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Duct tape
  • Rain poncho
  • Snowbrush
  • Shovel
  • Windshield washer fluid
  • Warm clothing
  • Cat litter for traction
  • Blankets

Avoid leaving your car running for extended periods of time to heat or cool the car. You run the risk of exposing your kids and yourself to carbon monoxide poisoning, especially if there's deep snow on the ground.

If someone stops and offers help, don’t open or roll down your windows. If you feel threatened or harassed, dial 911 back, honk your horn, and flash your headlights to attract attention.

Keep your car gassed up and keep your cell phone charged on the road. Also keeping up with your car’s maintenance can thwart a lot of mechanical problems. 

We have more tips for avoiding problems on Virginia's roads. If you still fall on the side of bad luck (or the side of the road), remember our smart tips and you'll be the expert at keeping your kids safe and sound.

Learn more about auto insurance in Virginia

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