To Tow or Not to Tow — Which Car Problems Require a Tow?

by | Aug 10, 2017 | Auto Questions, Car Problems & Repairs

When you have a car problem, sometimes it is hard to know whether to have the car towed, whether to get the repair done on the spot, or whether it’s safe to drive your car to the shop.  Here are some tips to help you decide what to do when faced with this situation.

Flat Tires – One of the most common car problems is a flat tire due to a tire puncture.  Should you try and change it on the side of the road, call for someone to change the wheel right there, or have the car towed? Most of the time it is best to have the car towed because it is the safest option. The second best option would be to have the tire repaired or the wheel changed by a garage or a motoring organization. Importantly, if you have not changed a wheel before do not attempt it. Some people opt to drive the car with a flat tire; this normally ends up with a $300-400 wheel being damaged. Only drive the car as far as is necessary to get into a safe position.  If you are on an interstate highway, get right over to the right, onto the grass if necessary. You may even want to consider getting out of the car and away from the highway; there have been many cases where a stranded car has been hit.

Battery Problems – The next most common problem is when the car battery becomes completely discharged (flat or dead). Batteries do go dead just because of age.  If you believe this is likely the case, having the battery changed by a motoring organization might be a convenient option. But in a large percentage of cases, there is another reason behind the problem with the battery.  That’s why it’s a good idea to have the car towed.  This way, an auto service technician can diagnose the problem.

Once, while having dinner by a window looking out over a parking lot, I watched as a motoring organization struggled to get a car going. It took over an hour to finish our dinner, but still, they had not gotten anywhere with getting the car started.  In the end, they towed the car.

Stalling – If your car is stalling or running badly then have your car towed. If any of the fluid warning lights come on have it towed.

Warning Lights – If the check engine light comes on steady (not flashing) then you can drive the car, but if it is flashing, have your car towed. If you have any doubts, then call the garage that services your car and get their advice. If the oil light is on, don’t try to drive the car; you can ruin your engine.  Also, if the high-temperature light is on, we recommend towing.

Smoke Coming From Car –  If there is white smoke or vapor coming from the hood with the smell of gasoline, it can be a dangerous situation. Do not open the hood, get as far away as you can and call 911. If the smoke is bluish and smells like burnt cooking oil, it’s a sign of an oil leak seeping onto the engine.  Since lack of oil can destroy your engine, you shouldn’t drive the car. You should get it towed. Check out this “smoking car” blog article for other types of smoke you may see.

Sudden Loud Noise – If you hear a sudden loud noise, it’s best to pull over and check it out.  Something may have fallen from the car, you may have rolled over something, or it can be a more serious issue.  If you can’t figure out what the problem is, it’s best to call a road service for help or have the car towed.

Sudden Decrease in Drivability or Handling – If suddenly your car becomes difficult to steer, is wobbling, or begins tugging in one direction, it’s important to pull over and check out the situation.  It could be caused by a flat tire, which we covered above, a loose wheel, or even something as benign as a change in the road service.  The bottom line is that you want to make sure you have figured out the cause before continuing to drive the car.  If the car isn’t controllable, you don’t want to drive it.

Lastly, it is very important to establish a relationship with an independent auto repair shop that can give you advice. That way, if you run into trouble, you’ll have a trusted adviser that you can talk to.  We offer our customers a hotline they can call during non-business hours if they ever run into trouble.

It’s even better to have your car regularly serviced as outlined in the manufacturer’s service manual.  When your car is serviced, make sure that part of the service is checking the tires carefully for damage or to see if something has been picked up and has punctured the tire. Regular servicing should also include battery checks. If your battery is over five years old, consider having it changed. (In hotter parts of the country this could be every two years). Preventive car care helps to avoid automobile breakdowns, and then the towing question never comes up.  

If you live in the Columbia, Maryland area, we are happy to offer you a free consultation. 

This blog article was originally posted in October, 2010 and has been updated.

photo courtesy of Rachel Smith

1 Comment

  1. Charlotte Fleet

    I like that you explain that if your battery dies it could be a sign of a larger problem with the battery and would be a good sign you should get your car towed. My husband mentioned that his friend’s battery died last week and he insisted on driving with it. I think when you get a dead battery it is better for you to call a towing company to make sure you don’t have it die when you can’t get help.


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About the Author

About Brian England

Brian England, the current president of BA Auto Care (formerly British American Auto Care), got his start with an auto apprenticeship in a small town in northwest of London. He came to the U.S. in 1972 to work for a Land Rover dealer in Rockville, MD. A few years later, he started British American Auto Care with his wife, Jennifer. Brian is a big believe in preventative maintenance, and his philosophy is to encourage and educate drivers on the benefits of a regular maintenance plan.