Have you ever gotten into your car, turned the key to start the engine, only to have that deep sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach? You know the one. You try the ignition one more time but the engine just won’t start. Before the total despair sets in, there are a few things you can check on to get you back up and running faster than you can type out one of those vaguely apologetic emoji-filled text messages to your boss about being late for your shift.

Neutral Safety Switch

Whenever something is not working on my truck, I always try to determine the most obvious, easiest, and cheapest issue to check on first and work my way up from there. The first and easiest thing to check if your car won’t start is to make sure your transmission is in “park.” Unless your car is a custom hot rod you wired yourself with no regard towards safety for yourself or your engine, you likely have a neutral safety switch in your vehicle. The neutral safety switch interrupts the electric current to the starter motor if your transmission is in any gear other than “park” or “neutral,” hence the name. If you have a manual transmission, the neutral safety switch interrupts the current to the starter unless the clutch pedal is pressed down. If your neutral safety switch is going out you may need to do some jiggling and wiggling of your transmission shifter, or switch from “park” to “neutral” to try to start your car. If you have a manual transmission, try pressing your clutch all the way down or re-pressing the clutch pedal while you try to start your engine again. If your car started, congratulations! But don’t celebrate too fast: You’ll need to look into replacing your neutral safety switch if you want to avoid being in this situation again in the near future.

Loose Battery Connection

You’ve tried getting your car started in “park” and in “neutral,” but it’s still not working. You turn the key and there is no sign of any life under the hood whatsoever. Try to turn on the lights. If the lights don’t turn on at all or are very dim, your issue is likely that there is little to no power flowing from the battery. Pop open the hood and take a look at your battery posts and terminals. If your battery terminals are loose to the point that you can move them on the battery post you will not get a good flow of electrical current, even if your battery is fully charged. You will need to tighten down your battery terminals in order to get a proper flow of electricity to your starter motor to get your engine to start. You can do this with a wrench of appropriate size to tighten down the terminals that clamp down on to the battery posts. Be very careful not to connect the two battery posts with your wrench, or any other metal tool, or even with your hands for that matter. It seems an obvious thing to mention but it does still happen to the best and brightest among us. Making this small mistake once will be enough to teach you this lesson for the rest of your life.

If you don’t have any tools with you, try smacking the battery terminals with the heel of your shoe to turn them on the post. Hitting the terminal might twist or adjust it to a better connection with the battery post. If you’re lucky, it should be enough to get your car started. Inspect the battery terminals thoroughly and take notice of any corrosion. Corrosion will appear as white-colored crumbs around the terminals where they connect to the battery posts. If you see any corrosion, you will want to clean it as soon as you can in order to avoid a whole heap of problems, the least of which would be your car not starting again. If this is a recurring issue, get yourself a battery terminal cleaner tool at your local auto parts or hardware store. This tool only costs a few bucks and will help you get the most out of your current battery, extending its life so you don’t have to fork over a Benjamin or two for a new one just yet.


So whacking your battery with an old shoe while your neighbors stare at you from their windows, likely wondering if you’ve finally lost it after two years of “Two Weeks to Flatten the Curve,” didn’t work? Now you’re really pissed off and you want to hit even more things with your shoe. Boy, have you come to the right place in this article. You’ve tightened up the battery terminals, maybe even cleaned them. Now your lights are turning on, and maybe you’re hearing a slight click of the starter relay but the starter motor isn’t budging. The starter motor may be stuck. This is more likely in older vehicles or vehicles that have not been started in a while, but it’s still worth a shot to investigate with other scenarios as well. Locate the starter motor on your vehicle with the help of the owner’s manual or the internet. This will likely mean crawling under your vehicle, so make sure to lay down some cardboard, an old rug, or yoga mat before you ruin your nice work clothes. Give the starter motor a hearty tap with a shoe, a wrench, or pry bar a few times. This might help dislodge any stuck gears or help engage misaligned gears in order to crank the engine itself. If this trick works at getting your car started, you will want to get your starter inspected to make sure there are not any broken gear teeth or other damage.

Jumping Your Battery

Still no luck starting your car after all that? Well I’m sorry to say that the culprit is likely a dead battery. If your lights are very dim or not coming on at all, and if you turn the key in the ignition which might get you a weak groaning sound but the engine never starts, a dead battery is likely the case. Here is the point where you will need help from those voyeur neighbors or a friendly stranger driving by, so maybe it’s time to put that shoe down. You will need to track down some jumper cables and a car with a good battery. Once you have those things sorted, crack open your vehicle’s owner’s manual and read everything it has to say about jumping the battery. Re-read it until you are confident you understand every word before doing anything. Some vehicles can be damaged by jumping the battery, especially newer vehicles since they are computers on wheels and tend to have more delicate electrical components. If your manual explicitly states not to jump the battery, that’s a warning I would heed if you want your car to continue to be operable.

In most cases jumping your battery is relatively simple and safe, not to mention near instantly effective. You are in essence borrowing a running car battery without the hassle of taking it out of said running car. The whole procedure should look something like this:

Park the running car close enough for the jumper cables to reach from one battery to the other. Face to face usually works best, but side by side can work in a tight spot as well. The cars should not touch, and should be turned off and in “park.”

Connect the red jumper cable first to the positive battery terminal of the donor working battery, then to the positive battery terminal of the dead battery. The positive terminals will be marked with a “+” or “POS”; it never hurts to double check even though this may seem obvious.

Being very careful not to touch any of the jumper cable clamps with the other color, connect one end of the black jumper cable to the negative terminal (marked with a “-” or “NEG”) on your donor battery, and the other end to a ground on the car with the dead battery. A good ground would be on any metal part, like the engine block, a steel bracket on the alternator or power steering, or any exposed metal without any paint. In a pinch, you could connect to the negative terminal of your dead battery, but it is not the safest way to go about it nor is it the easiest path for the electricity to take. Proceed at your own risk!

Now start the car with the donor battery. Wait a minute and try to start your car with the dead battery. Let both cars run for about five minutes before disconnecting the cables.

To disconnect the cables safely, reverse the order in which you connected them: First the ground clamp, then the negative terminal clamp. Then disconnect the positive jumper cables, always being careful not to touch the ends while they are connected to the battery.

Even though you are likely extremely relieved that your car is finally back up and running, make sure to investigate why the battery died in the first place. Did you leave any lights on? Is there a short in the electrical system that’s draining power while it’s parked? Is the battery just very, very old? If you don’t find out why your battery died, you run the risk of finding yourself in the same situation over and over again while also wearing down an expensive battery that could have lasted a lot longer.

Spark, Fuel, Air, and Compression

These are the four elements that are needed for any engine to run smoothly. Getting your car started is one thing, keeping it in good running condition is another. If your vehicle continues starting inconsistently or running poorly, you will want to dive into each one of these elements, maybe with the help of your new bestie mechanic, to see which one is missing or compromised in your vehicle. You can use this skill to diagnose and start any engine, no matter how long it has been since it last ran. I warn you now: Being able to start what was previously thought to be an unstartable engine is an incredibly addicting feeling of ultimate power. It’s probably the closest you could feel to wearing the one ring to rule them all. Or growing your own tomatoes. I hope you wield this newfound power wisely and, most importantly, generously!

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illustrations by Deanna Larmeu