Recently I realized that my husband and I could have done a better job of educating our children in what to do when the car breaks down.

This revelation came to me while my daughters and I were on the shoulder of I-80 in north central Illinois with a flat.

We were on our way to a family reunion, about 75 minutes into our 2.5 hour trek, when another vehicle slowed next to us and the driver gestured with a “thumbs down” as he pointed to our back tire.

I pulled us over to the right shoulder, knowing that getting out of our vehicle on the busy I-80 corridor was about as dangerous as driving on a flat. It took all of two seconds to confirm the low tire. As the vehicles on I-80 zoomed by me at 85 mph, I felt like a pit crew member of Helio Castroneves. “Of all places to get a flat …” I thought to myself.

Generally, I try to look at the bright side of things, and we were lucky that the exit was literally right in front of us.

Despite the broken air pump at the gas station, our good luck continued. Another driver had a pump in her car — the kind that hooks into the car lighter — and when she saw our struggles, she volunteered to pump up our tire. It was rather heartwarming, because she was seven months pregnant; and in the end, she refused to take even a cold beverage as a “thank you.”

While she was pumping, I telephoned my husband to confirm the recommended tire pressure. He reminded me that I had an air pump in our vehicle. At that point, I felt super guilty and foolish that a pregnant lady was doing the job that I was capable of and equipped to do myself.

Our pump was stowed in back with our flashlight, umbrella, blankets and emergency flashing light. I’m sure that my husband on more than one occasion showed me where every item was and demonstrated how it worked, but my brain usually goes into hibernation when receiving any instruction in electronics or automotives.

While he can make changing a flat look really easy, I know that if I had attempted to change the tire that morning, we would have been driving down I-80 with a wayward axle. Fortunately, a little bit of PSI and a very kind-hearted stranger helped us back on our way.

Afterward, I couldn’t help but wonder how my daughter would have handled the situation had she been traveling alone. She has just about two years of driving under her belt. Would she have known to move to the shoulder and turn on her hazard lights? Would she have known how to use the air pump at the gas station (if it had worked) or the pump in our vehicle? What if she had been in the middle of nowhere, on a cold, dark night without a cell phone?

Being stranded with a car problem is at best annoying, and at worst, beyond scary. Your child doesn’t have to be like me and depend upon the preparedness of a pregnant woman to get him or her safely to the intended destination.

These tips from American Automobile Association may help your child stay safe in the event of a break down – they may seem very basic, but a new driver may not consider them without being trained:

• Note your surroundings – e.g. nearest exit, town, landmark.

• Assess the problem – note smoke, dashboard lights, sounds.

• Pull away from traffic as far as possible.

• Turn on emergency flashers and raise the hood.

It’s also a good idea to have safety supplies in the car, whether your child is traveling across the county or across the nation.

These include a cell phone and charger, first aid kit, vehicle operating manual, emergency telephone numbers (and, information about your roadside assistance services), flashlight and extra batteries, flares or warning reflectors, coolant, windshield washer fluid, paper towels, jumper cables, tire pressure gauge, air pump and a toolkit with duct tape, screwdriver, pliers and wrench.

When traveling in winter or up in the mountains where snow is a possibility, heavy blankets, boots, a warm coat, hat and gloves, ice scrapers, snow brush and shovel and kitty litter are also helpful. Water, food and prescribed medication may be a good idea, as well as an emergency credit card or cash (in case a towing company won’t take a check.)

A vehicle needs routine check-ups just like a human body. In addition to routine check-ups, have the tires, lights, belts, hoses, fluids and wipers checked out before longer excursions.

AAA has some other ideas to share to help young (and old) drivers be prepared:

• Plan your route before you depart, and let others know your plans.

• Watch the weather.

• Be alert to construction areas.

• Minimize distractions including passengers, music and cell phones.

• In most cases, stay with your vehicle. And, for this I remember the simple Rule of Three that I heard on the Weather Channel years ago. If you’re stranded in a blizzard: you can survive three weeks without food, three days without water but only three hours without shelter.

My own list of verboten practices which is grounds for losing the privilege of driving includes: not wearing a seatbelt, driving too fast, driving while distracted, driving too closely behind another vehicle and driving while impaired — which could be from fatigue, drowsiness caused by medicine or alcohol.

In hindsight, our flat made the travels to our family reunion even more memorable. And, with all of the recent random acts of violence, I was so happy that my daughters could experience a random act of kindness.

Pamela Henderson is the director of development and communications at Dunebrook. To learn more about parenting and support programs at Dunebrook, call (800) 897-0007. Email Pam with parenting questions and comments at

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