What To Do If Your Car Won’t Start

Most of us take it for granted when we jump into the driver’s seat and turn the key in the ignition, waiting for the sound of the vehicle to grumble to life. However, there are times when you do just that, but the car does not start.

It can be particularly frustrating to face ignition problems, especially if you are not in your own driveway. But don’t worry—there are a few methods of troubleshooting the engine when it won’t turn over and figuring out where the issue lies.

Read on for tips on where to begin if your car won’t start up and how to get it working again!

See if the Car Is in Park

Most drivers will fall victim to this simple error at least once throughout their driving careers. If the car is not already in park and has been left in gear, the vehicle will not start for safety reasons. Just pop the gear shift into park, and try again.

Alternatively, if your car will not start when in park but will once you put it into neutral, or if it starts while in any gear other than park, that’s a bad sign. Any car that will start in a gear other than park likely has a faulty neutral safety switch, making driving hazardous.

It is recommended that you call for a tow truck to come and collect the vehicle if this is the case. Don’t try and drive it to your local mechanic’s repair shop—issues with the safety switch are very dangerous to drive with. 

Make Sure There Is Fuel

The solution to your problem might be deceptively simple—does the vehicle have enough fuel? Without enough gas in the tank, the fuel filters cannot deliver proper amounts to the fuel injectors and into the engine.

If your fuel gauge was not running low previously, but it seems that you have an empty gas tank now, get out and check for signs of a fuel leak. This could be a sign of a cracked tank or another problem with the fueling system. 

Check the Car Battery

A common problem that causes your car to remain dormant even when turning the ignition is a dead battery. If there are no sounds or lights on the dash when you twist the key, and you don’t hear the engine turn over, the car’s battery could be the culprit.

Additionally, you might notice a weak display of the battery symbol on the dash if there is just enough juice left in the battery. Or, the headlights could appear weak or significantly dimmed. If this is the case, it’s time to pop the hood and take a look inside.

While some cars can be jump-started easily, newer models are not always designed to be jumped by another vehicle. Instead, use a portable car battery charger that is safe for your model. Check the owner’s manual or the manufacturer’s website for further information. 

Examine the Battery Connections

If the battery is alright, there could still be faulty connections preventing the engine from getting the power it needs to turn over. This is a less common occurrence, but it is definitely worth testing anyway.

Locate the cable connections to the car’s battery and try turning or twisting them. If you can move them by hand, the connection is loose, and some sort of debris or buildup could be in the way of making a secure connection to the battery nodes.

To clean off the battery connectors, remove them and clean out the insides with a rag. Once you reconnect them to the car battery nodes, you will likely need a wrench to clamp them on tightly. Then, try turning on the car again with fresh battery attachments.

Replace the Key Fob Battery

It can be easy to forget about the battery in your key fob, but they also have a specific life span, and this could be the day your fob’s battery has died.

This is especially true if your car lets you press a “Start” button instead of inserting a key. Because the car’s ignition sensor is waiting for the signal from the key fob, it will not turn on if the battery has died and no signal is released.

Try replacing your key fob’s battery according to the instructions in the owner’s manual. Or, if your key fob has a slide-out key, use that to turn on the car and ascertain that you are not facing a larger vehicular issue.

Check the Starter

If you hear a clicking sound when you turn the key in the ignition, but the car still won’t start, you could be hearing the noise that accompanies a broken starter.

The starter cable is a thick, electrical wire that carries current directly to your car’s ignition and, unfortunately, can become degraded over time and use. If you have previously noticed your vehicle taking longer to start in the morning, this could be a sign.

Unfortunately, if a broken starter is indeed the issue, you will need professional servicing to fix it. It’s time to call a tow truck and take the vehicle to your local repair shop right away.

Clean Dirty Starter Cables

The problem with your car not turning on might still lie with the starter cable, but not with it being broken. Because the starter cable is responsible for carrying so much electrical current to the ignition, it is susceptible to becoming corroded, preventing it from working.

If your vehicle doesn’t start because of a dirty starter cable, the corrosion can be cleaned off quite easily. Open the hood and remove the ends of the starter cable from the battery and starter. Then, carefully clean the ends and posts with a wire brush.

Make sure to scrape out any dirt, oil, or grease that has built up and any electrical corrosion that has happened. Once the ends of your starter cable are spotless, reattach them to the battery and the starter, close the hood, and try turning that key again! 

Identify Ignition Switch Issues

If your car is not starting, but you can still see lights on the dashboard, meaning that your car battery is working, it might be an issue with the ignition switch.

The ignition switch is responsible for activating the main electrical systems of your vehicle, including the power from the battery to all components. And if this switch does not work properly, the entire ignition system and starter motor are dead.

Unfortunately, the ignition switch is not a problem that you can fix yourself. You will have to take the vehicle into an automotive repair center to have it replaced, and the rest of the system realigned.

Troubleshoot a Locked Steering Wheel

Most cars have a safety function for the steering wheel that locks the entire steering column firmly in case of towing or burglary. However, this can also backfire if the steering wheel gets stuck in a locked position when it’s not supposed to.

Cars typically will not start if the steering wheel is in a locked position. This is primarily for safety reasons but also to reduce the amount of lateral front axle movement if the vehicle needs to be transported or towed.

Don’t use brute force to fix a stuck steering wheel lock. Instead, put the key in straight and try wiggling the steering wheel gently from side to side. Alternatively, try starting the car with a duplicate car key that might not have worn out tumblers.

Check the Alternator

Signs that the alternator is the culprit include being able to start your car and having it immediately stalling again or noticing the interior lights turn on normally but quickly dim to nothing. Your car’s alternator could be acting up if either of these events occurs.

Additionally, an especially telling sign is if you turn the key and notice a burning smell. Because the alternator controls belts in the engine, you will smell hot rubber if it is not working well. Unfortunately, there is no at-home fix for the alternator, so call for a tow!

Know When It’s Time to Replace the Timing Belt

If you hear the starter motor engage without turning over or a ticking noise from under the hood, it could be a sign of a faulty timing belt. This sound is made by pistons in the engine attempting to fire but finding no resistance, so some valves begin to release.

The cause is the timing belt—this thick rubber strip is essential for function as it essentially connects the upper and lower halves of the engine. The timing belt works to rotate the crankshaft and the cam within the engine itself.

Simply put, without the timing belt in perfect working order, the engine will not run. Timing belts can wear out and lose the friction necessary to rotate incumbent parts and break entirely. If this is the case, stop trying to start the car and call a tow truck.

Timing belts cannot be repaired or replaced at home. So, to prevent it from happening again, make sure that you include the timing belt in routine maintenance checks and get it replaced regularly by your mechanic.

Call Your Insurance Provider

If your car is experiencing serious mechanical issues, your insurer might be able to help. Whether it’s been caused by an accident or you simply need roadside assistance, drivers can trust their insurance provider for support and guidance.