The Ultimate “Car Won’t Start” Checklist

Mornings are hectic as we get ready for school and work, drop kids off at daycare, or rush to an important appointment. Our minds race with the to-do list that seems only to grow longer. However, nothing brings it to a screeching halt faster than finding your car won’t start.

While emergency roadside assistance is always an option, here is a checklist of the most common causes. We’ll also talk about how to recognize these common causes and what to do to get on the road faster.

The car is in gear.

The vehicle will only start in Park or Neutral. If it’s in another gear, shift to Park and try again.

The key won’t turn.

As part of the anti-theft system, the steering wheel can lock if someone turns the wheel without inserting the key. There should be a little give when you shift the steering wheel side to side. Find the sweet spot and try again.

Your key fob won’t work.

Sometimes, the battery runs out on your key fob, and the anti-theft system won’t allow the engine to start. Try putting the fob directly against the starter. If that doesn’t work, you need to replace the battery or use the spare key before the car will function.

The gas tank is empty.

Your newly licensed teenager lost track of the amount of gas in the car and brought it back on empty. A towing service can get you gas, or you can use the red gas cans and buy two or more gallons at the local gas station. Once you fill the tank, you may need a jump start to get the car running again.

The car makes a rapid clicking sound

when you turn the key, but the engine doesn’t start. Your battery might be dead. Leaving something electrical operating in the car overnight may deplete the battery (if your currents are set up to continue even when the vehicle is not running), or it may be the cold.

Check the battery to verify the connection is good. If there’s corrosion or loose wires, confirm the engine is turned off before attempting to clean the battery. If you are nervous about working with the battery, a car jumpstart service can handle it and get your battery up and running again.

For a DIY solution, grab a friendly neighbor to jumpstart your car after the battery is clean. (Never touch or allow metal tools to simultaneously connect positive and negative connections. Keep the free ends separate to avoid electrical shock once the jumper cables are attached to the working vehicle.) The jumper cables and battery should be labeled with positive and negative signs. Clamp the cable onto the connector and start the working car. Let it run a minute before attempting to start the malfunctioning car. If it works, take the battery to an auto part store so they can see if the battery is still in good working order. If not, you need to replace it.

You jumpstarted the car, but it died

before you reached the auto part store. The alternator, which keeps charging the battery while you drive, may need to be repaired or replaced.

The car lights turn on, but the engine won’t start.

Your battery is good if the lights turn on. You may have a bad starter, the part that takes electricity from the battery to start the engine. It’s time to call your local towing company to transport your car to a repair shop.

You turn the key and see or smell smoke.

You might have a blown fuse. Fuses are easily accessible. Your car owner’s manual will tell you what kind of fuse to buy and how to replace it.

The dashboard has flickering lights, and the engine doesn’t crank.

The problem may be the ignition switch. Your car needs professional care.

The engine cranks, you hear clicks, but it won’t turn over.

It sounds like you need to replace a spark plug. You can get spark plugs at an auto part store, along with the tool to install it properly, or you can have the repair shop give you a tuneup.

Your car misfires.

Have your mechanic check the distributor cap and timing belt.

The car has been running rough and getting worse gas mileage than normal.

The vehicle may have trouble starting if you have a clogged fuel filter. Change the fuel filter every 30,000 miles.

The AdBlue light is on.

Add at least 4 liters to turn the light off, and get the car running again.

We recommend you print this checklist and keep it in your glove compartment. That way, no matter who is driving the car, they will have what they need to return to the road. If you’re in Utah, call Roadside Rescue for aid at 801-803-4900.


Mornings unfold in a frenzy as we prepare for school, work, daycare drop-offs, or crucial appointments, our minds overwhelmed by an ever-expanding to-do list. Amidst this rush, discovering that your car refuses to start can abruptly bring everything to a screeching halt. While emergency roadside assistance is a fallback option, we present a comprehensive checklist addressing the most common causes of car-starting issues. The guide not only outlines these issues but also provides insights into recognizing them and offers solutions to expedite getting back on the road.