Driving advice

How to deal with traffic jams

If you are driving across Europe on holiday, the journey will be long, stressful, and at peak holiday times can include some epic traffic jams. One of the longest in history was in 1980 and measured 109 miles on the French Autoroute between Lyon and Paris. On that occasion heavy holiday traffic and poor weather were the reason. But it doesn’t take much more than a broken down car for the roads to clog up.

If you get stuck in a jam

Don't forget to pay attention to the road - just because you are driving slowly doesn't mean you can't have a collision. In long tailbacks on motorways some people try vainly to speed up their progress by constantly switching lanes. If you are looking down at a map, or just drifting off into a daydream, remember to be alert to somebody suddenly cutting in front of you. And if you spot a lane-changer coming up behind you, be extra vigilant once they’ve gone past.

Take a break

Traffic jams can clear as quickly as they form. If you take a break the congestion might have dispersed by the time you’ve had a cup of coffee or a meal.

Avoiding a breakdown

The engine may overheat and stop in slow-moving traffic if the coolant levels are too low. Before you set off on a long journey, use your vehicle’s handbook to find out the correct reservoir under the bonnet and top it up to just below the ‘max’ line. Do this while the engine is cold. If you try when it’s hot you may get scalded. Add the coolant (usually a mixture of water and anti-freeze) and secure the cap again.

Once you are in a jam, keep an eye on the engine temperature gauge if your car has one. Before it gets into the red, the cooling fan under the bonnet should kick in. Turn off the air-conditioning first, this makes the engine do extra work. If the temperature gauge continues to rise, turn the heater and ventilation fan on full and open the windows. As soon as it’s safe to do so, pull over in a safe place and turn the engine off.

Get out and check if something like a plastic bag is blocking the airflow to the radiator at the front of the car. Lift the bonnet cautiously (beware, the electric cooling fan may still be running) and see if there is steam escaping anywhere or there is coolant, usually a green colour, dripping onto the road below. If there is, you will need to get this repaired by calling your breakdown operator.

If the coolant level is too low or perhaps even empty, wait for the engine to cool down before topping it up. If you don't have any coolant, water alone is fine as a temporary solution. Once the engine has cooled, start driving again. But keep an eye on the temperature gauge in case it starts to rise again.

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