What to do if your car won't start

When your car won't start, take a moment to do some initial troubleshooting. Although you might be able to handle some of the more common problems yourself, like a dead car battery or cold engine oil, certain scenarios require help from a mechanic or roadside assistance.

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Common car problems

One of most the common reasons a car won't start is because of a dead battery. Standard car batteries usually only last three to five years, depending on the vehicle's use. With a dead battery, having a set of jumper cables and a nearby motorist willing to help may be enough to get your car started again. Check on an older car battery as soon as possible afterward, though. Auto repair shops and most auto parts stores should be able to test the battery life on the spot, often for free.

Cold weather puts extra strain on car batteries, significantly reducing their strength. The cold can also thicken essential fluids that need to flow through the engine. If you suspect the cold is causing the issue, you can try "cycling the key" to get the battery warmed up:

  • Turn the key from the off position to the start position 10 times in a row
  • Try to start the engine again after waiting a few minutes

If this process doesn't work the first time and your car won't start, wait a moment and then try it again.

Newer vehicles have push buttons instead of keys that go in the ignition. These buttons need a signal from the remote or key fob to start. Sometimes the remote battery dies or gets out of sync with the car. Try swapping out the fob's battery first. Then, if that doesn't do it, follow the owner's manual for how to reprogram the remote.

When to call for help

Certain situations require roadside assistance. You might be well-versed in jump-starting a battery, but without cables or another person with a vehicle who can connect their battery to yours, it's time to call a pro. Other technical reasons could be the root of a mechanical or electrical breakdown, in which case you would need your car towed to the closest qualified mechanic for repair. Here are a few mechanical/electrical issues that generally require a professional:

Bad alternator

Connected to the battery is the alternator, which works to generate power for your vehicle's electrical components. When you have a brand-new battery but still can't start the car, the alternator might be the issue. Cold and damp climates may increase wear on an alternator, causing it to fail. Flickering gauges and a burning rubber smell could indicate that the alternator overheated and requires replacement.

Faulty starter, fuel filter/pump, timing belt, & more

If the car makes clicking noises when you're trying to start it and the battery isn't at fault, a faulty starter motor might be the culprit. Plenty of other parts can fail: the fuel filter, fuel pump, timing belt, spark plug, ignition switch, or cables to name a few. You'll want to get your car into the shop as quickly as possible.

Modern vehicles are essentially computers on wheels. A number of mechanical problems — such as a faulty temperature sensor or a malfunctioning alternator — may confuse the onboard computing systems. A qualified mechanic can run diagnostics at the shop for you.

Who to call if your car won't start

Calling a roadside assistance service is a good first step as they could possibly fix your vehicle without having to tow it to a mechanic. Roadside assistance for stranded drivers typically includes services such as:

  • Moving a stuck vehicle
  • Towing to a nearby mechanic
  • Battery jump-starting
  • Electric vehicle recharging
  • Flat tire changes
  • Fuel delivery
  • Lock out services

When considering whether to add roadside assistance coverage to your auto insurance policy, first check if you already have it from another source like a credit card company or car manufacturer (especially if you own a new vehicle). Find out exactly what the service covers and if there are any limitations or restrictions that apply.

With certain conditions, purchasing roadside assistance coverage could provide better value. Learn more about car insurance coverages.

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