Safe&Sound: Keeping Kids Safe When The Car Breaks Down

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). 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.

Moms everywhere still breakdown so I decided to survey our NNINS experts on what are the smartest and safest roadside practices. Who better to ask than folks with decades of experience in roadside troubles? So here’s what I wish I had known that day: 


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! 


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, and mile markers or exit numbers-if you’re on a highway.


This is key to your family's safety

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. Even after you’ve pulled over, everyone should keep their seat belts on! If you are super prepared and have an emergency car kit with flares and/or reflective triangles, they’ll sure come to use now.


There’s no one right answer here. Exercise caution and follow your mom gut on this one. 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, could be 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. So 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:

  • 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
  • Take your kids far away from the road. If you’re on a highway, move behind any available barrier or up an embankment.


Dialing 911 will dispatch help from VA State Police and VDOT’s 511 emergency roadside assistance team if you’re on a major Virginia highway. Also call NNINS Emergency Roadside Assistance at 1-800-913-8847. Tell the dispatchers that you have young children with you and if you are in a remote area or feel unsafe.


*Warning: Waiting for help likely will result in squirming, whining, maybe 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. A couple more suggestions:

  • Don’t leave 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.
  •  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.

Here are a few last tips: I mentioned having an emergency car kit a couple of times (hint, hint). Keep your car gassed up and that handy cell phone charged on the road. Also keeping up with your car’s maintenance can thwart a lot of mechanical problems. If you still fall on the side of bad luck (or the side of the road), just remember our smart tips and you'll be the expert at keeping your kids safe and sound.

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