4 Most Common Roadside Emergencies — And How to Avoid Them

The most common roadside emergencies are also the easiest to avoid if you drive prepared.

a young woman calling for help from the side of the road with her car's hood open
No one likes to be stranded on the side of the road.
mimeagephotography / Shutterstock

While cars are a lot more complicated than they were just a few years ago, they also are more reliable. Even so, AAA Emergency Road Service trucks keep busy answering calls from stranded motorists. So far, the complicated electronics and machinery beneath the hoods of today’s cars have yet to make a dent in the traditional reasons people call for roadside help. The top culprits remain Model-A-era maladies easily understood and avoided by anybody clever enough to know which end of the ignition key to insert, and where.

Here are the most common reasons for Emergency Road Service calls, and how you can avoid them:

1. Flat Tire

Road hazards can destroy even a new tire. But old-time tire maintenance still is valuable in heading off trouble. It’s nothing you don’t already know, but here’s a reminder: Regularly inspect each tire for proper inflation. This means using a gauge, as eyeballing side-wall bulge isn’t sufficiently precise. Don’t forget the spare; tires can lose air just sitting there, and flat spares are both common and frustrating. 

The tire manufacturer’s recommendation for maximum tire inflation is printed on the tire’s sidewall. Typically, it’s about 44 pounds per square inch (psi) for passenger car tires. This is a maximum which should never be exceeded; 35 psi is the average normal inflation, but always check the car’s owner manual or glove box sticker to confirm the best pressure for your vehicle's tires. Tire air pressure should always be measured while the tire is cold. Use your own high-quality gauge, as those on gas station air hoses may not be accurate.

Check the tires for cuts and bulges—these inevitably mean trouble ahead. Uneven wear also can be a problem. Rotating tires can even out the wear among all four; follow the rotation pattern and schedule suggested in the manual. Always replace tires with excessive tread wear.

2. Empty Fuel Tank

People have been running out of fuel since at least the 1890s, when gas gauges consisted of wooden dipsticks.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist: When out on long, empty stretches of road, heed those road signs warning "Next fuel 89 miles." Even when close to home, pay attention to that fuel gauge, and make the occasional timely visit to a filling station.


3. Lockout

When it comes to getting locked out of your car, prevention is simple and cheap.

Carry a spare key in your wallet or purse. Don’t keep it in a jacket pocket—jackets often are left in cars. And don’t try to hide it in a wheel well or beneath the floorboards. Give those thieves a little credit.

Get into the habit of locking your car door with the key. This ensures you have it with you when the car is locked up.

Write down the key code number and keep it in your wallet or purse. A locksmith may be able to make a new key using the number. The key code number sometimes can be found on a sticker in the glove box, sometimes in the car’s owner manual, sometimes on a metal tag accompanying the key, or you can ask the dealer.

4. Dead Battery

People had been running out of gas for over a decade and having flat tires for nearly as long when Cadillac introduced the electric starter in the 1912 model year. As the hand crank gradually was phased out, battery problems came on strong.

Modern batteries require little maintenance, but over time they eventually become too weak to start the car. They also can be adversely affected by extremes of cold and heat.

"Low maintenance" batteries occasionally may need to be topped off with distilled water, while "maintenance free" batteries have sealed covers instead of filler caps, so you couldn’t top one off if you wanted to. This doesn’t mean they’re truly maintenance free, however. You should check regularly for loose, dirty, or corroded terminals and cables. These can drain power or prevent the battery from charging. Use a commercial cleaner or a mixture of baking soda and water with a wire brush to clean corroded terminals.

Since batteries pack less of a punch with age, be aware of the length of your battery’s guarantee. Five years is a common figure. While the battery may last well beyond its guarantee, it quite possibly will not and, even if still alive, may not be able to perform as it did when young. Replacement as the battery’s expected age limit arrives can be a helpful bit of preventive maintenance.

This article was first published in March 1997 and last updated in March 2024.