D. O. "Spike" Helmick is the retired Commisioner of the California Highway Patrol

Spike Helmick, Retired CHP Commissioner

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Driver education has changed since we were children. Many public schools no longer offer driver education or driver training.

What to do when your vehicle is disabled

Traveling California’s freeways can be a convenience and a pleasant adventure or it can be a frustrating, tiring and sometimes even a hazardous situation - particularly if your car becomes disabled. Fortunately your chances of breaking down on the freeway can be reduced or even eliminated if you practice some simple and basic rules.

Preventative Maintenance

Before traveling, have your vehicle thoroughly checked. Preventative maintenance is one area that can be easily neglected or overlooked. By ensuring that your vehicle is in good working order, you can reduce the possibility of a vehicle breakdown while driving. Among the things you should consider:

Cooling System

Carefully examine all belts and hoses for cracks or leaks, replacing any you may have doubts about. Consider carrying extras, along with tools, coolant and water to accomplish a change if necessary. Don’t overlook the radiator, which should be properly filled with coolant. While driving keep a close eye on the temperature gauge, shutting off the air conditioner if the engine heat creeps too high.


Check your tires. Make sure they are properly inflated and the tread is in good condition. Don’t forget the spare and make sure your jack and tire tools are in good condition.

Electrical System

Check all lighting equipment, making sure it is in good operating condition. Take a close look at the battery. Are the cables tight and is it filled to the proper level?

Other Systems

Make sure your brakes, windshield wipers, heater, defroster and exhaust systems are in top condition.


Check your fuel gauge and ensure that you have sufficient fuel to make it to your destination. When your fuel gauge drops to half, refill your tank. Don’t take chances and try to stretch a low fuel level.

Advanced Preparation

Have emergency items and equipment already in your vehicle. Most items can be kept in your vehicle year round, while others may be seasonal. By having these items at your disposal, you will be prepared to deal with any vehicle breakdowns you might experience.

Touch home base

Before you leave for your destination, let someone you know where you are going and when you expect to return.

Carry an emergency/survival kit

Have in your vehicle: flashlight and batteries; flares; a shovel; a windshield scraper; paper towels; tissue/toilet paper; blankets; waterproof clothing; drinking water and snacks or concentrated food; matches; work gloves; tools and extra parts for your car (i.e. hoses and fan belts); extra motor oil; and maps of your area and/or the areas you are traveling through.

Seasonal changes and environmental differences

Depending on the season or the environment you are traveling in, additional equipment may be required. For instance, in the winter months, it may be necessary for you to have tire chains and tighteners available in case of snow. Or, if you are traveling in the desert, it may be necessary for you to carry extra water, a spray bottle, a tarp, 50 feet of rope, a sheath knife and a signal mirror. To conserve your water, use the spray bottle and spray water in your mouth. If you have plenty, spray your skin to prevent dehydration. The tarp, rope, and knife can be used to rig a tent for shade. The signal mirror can be used for signaling aircraft or other rescuers.

If the worst happens and your vehicle breaks down

Don’t panic

If your vehicle breaks down, assess your situation and then consider alternatives. If possible, move your vehicle out of the traffic lanes and onto the shoulder, away from moving traffic.

Cellular telephones

If you have a cellular telephone, dial 911 and it will automatically be routed to the nearest California Highway Patrol (CHP) Communication Center. The appropriate assistance will then be provided to you. However, cellular phones do not come with a location finder, so you will need to know your approximate location.

Call Boxes

In many metropolitan areas, freeway call boxes have been installed to help stranded and disabled motorists. If possible, move your vehicle to the nearest call box. The call boxes also go directly to the nearest CHP Communications Center, where help can be obtained. In addition, the location of the call boxes predetermined so there will be little difficulty for the dispatcher in finding your exact whereabouts.

Stay with your car

If you are in an isolated area, it may be safer to stay in your car until help arrives. However, if your car is stopped in a traffic lane or at a location where other motorists cannot see your vehicle and must swerve to avoid it, it would be safer for you to leave your car and move onto the shoulder, preferably behind a guard rail or sturdy barrier. Keep your emergency flashers activated so others can see and avoid your disabled vehicle.

Do not stand in the lanes of traffic to wave others away from your vehicle

This would place you in a dangerous position where serious injury or even death could result. Instead, keep your emergency flashers activated and, if it is safe to do so, lay out flares to warn other motorists of your disabled vehicle.

Always be alert to moving traffic

Keep an eye on traffic and be alert to any cars that may head or drift towards your location. If you are staying inside your car, wear your safety belt. If you are outside of your car, be prepared to move to a safer location, away from moving traffic.

Be wary of strangers offering assistance

If you have not been able to call for help or if you are waiting for help to arrive, and a stranger arrives to offer assistance, use caution. If you have not yet been able to call for help and a stranger stops, approaches and offers assistance, remain in your vehicle and keep your doors locked. Open your window slightly and ask the stranger to call or go for help. If the offer is sincere, the stranger will respect your caution and call for help. If you are waiting for help to arrive, stay in your locked vehicle and through a slightly opened window, advise the stranger that assistance is en route.

The best way to avoid breaking down on the road is through the proper maintenance of your vehicle. Preventative maintenance will go a long way in not only preventing break downs, but will also increase the longevity and value of your car. And if you have properly prepared in advance for most basic roadside emergencies, you will be ready and able to deal with just about any situation. More importantly, should you become disabled on the highway, remain calm and practice good, common sense. Use all available resources at your disposal, be alert to moving traffic and be responsible for your own personal safety.

Law Enforcement Sites

The Official CHP WebSite

The CHP 11-99 Foundation was created to provide benefits to California Highway Patrol employees and their families

The California Association of Highway Patrolmen (CAHP) is a labor association whose primary purpose is to work for the benefit of all California Highway Patrol officers.

Other Sites

Mothers Against Drunk Driving