Life·6 min read

Things Every Driver Should Know How to Do (Like How to Jump Start a Car)

Person Holding Jumper Cables
Design: theSkimm | Photo: iStock
Jun 28, 2022

Maybe you accidentally left your car's lights on. Or maybe your battery was on its last leg to start with. Whatever the cause, your car won't start, no matter how many times you turn your keys in the ignition. But don't panic. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to jump start your car (and handle other car emergencies), courtesy of auto expert Tiffany Scherado, CFO of Lifetime Transmissions. We'll have your ride up and running in no time.

What are some of the most common car emergencies?

Not every day on the road is smooth sailing. Your car can stop working with little to no warning. Some of the most common car emergencies include:

  • Flat tires. Pro tip: If you don’t have a spare in the trunk, a tire plug or puncture sealant can help in the short term.

  • Running out of fuel. If possible, move off of the road. And call roadside assistance ASAP.

  • A dead battery. More on that in a sec.

  • Getting locked out of your car. To get inside, you can try a little DIY — or call your local locksmith.

“The most neglected maintenance that causes car emergencies are tires and batteries,” said Scherado. “My shop deals with really expensive repairs…but many of our repairs come from neglect of those two components as well, and those two components are probably the cheapest and easiest to maintain.”

How do I jump start a car?

We recommend keeping all of these items together in one easy-to-access place, just in case of an emergency:  

  • A flashlight

  • Your owner’s manual (FYI, you can usually find it in your car’s glove box)

  • Mechanic gloves...or at the very least, disposable gloves

  • Jumper cables — ideally, between 12 and 30 feet long

How do I know if my battery is dead? 

According to AutoZone, your car will give you clues if your battery has died, including: 

  • The battery has a strange smell (think: rotten eggs)

  • The battery is bigger than its normal size

  • Your radio isn’t working 

  • Your car suddenly starts slower than usual (depending on the make and model) 

  • The headlights are dim

How to jump start a car:

Note: If you have an electric or hybrid vehicle, you'll have to call a professional. “Those cars have so much electricity running through them that the technicians that work on them have to wear special gear. It’s probably best that most people have roadside assistance coverage for those models,” said Scherado. 

But if you do have a non-electric, non-hybrid vehicle and can get a good charge with a portable jump box (or a good Samaritan and jumper cables), Scherado said you may be able to drive to the nearest repair facility — or at least home — until you can get your battery replaced. “Just don’t shut off the car until you’re in a safe place. It might not start a second time,” Scherado warned. 

 According to Top Driver, here’s how to get it done, step-by-step: 

  1. Once you find someone willing to help (with a working car battery or a portable jump start battery), park the cars next to each other so they’re front to front. This way, your jumper cables — which have red and black clamps or clips — can reach the battery. If you can’t find your battery, a quick PSA: Some car manufacturers now install it in the trunk. 

  2. Put both cars in park and turn off the engines. Pop the hoods (or, as mentioned above, the trunks) of your vehicles and start connecting the cables. Each battery has one negative and one positive terminal, which are usually marked with a plus or minus sign. 

  3. Attach the red clamp of your jumper cable to the positive end of the dead battery. And then put the other red clamp on the positive end of the working battery. 

  4. Then, put the black clamp on the negative end of the working battery. And attach the other black clamp to an unpainted metal surface on the engine block. Important to note: Only attach the other black clamp to an unpainted metal surface. This way, you avoid a higher risk of fire — or even explosion — when the working car starts up. 

  5. Start up the working car and let the engine run for a couple of minutes, depending on how dead the battery is. That'll allow the battery to charge and get a power boost. 

  6. Now, start the car with the dead battery. The car should immediately start back up again. But if you turn the key with no results, turn the car completely off and let the working car run for another 5 to 10 minutes. If it still doesn’t work, your battery might need to be replaced. 

  7. Once your car is back up and running, you can begin to remove the cables — but do so in reverse order. (There’s a risk of fire if you don’t.) So take the black clamp off the unpainted metal surface first, then take the other black clamp off the working car. After that, take the red clamp off the positive end of the working car’s battery, then remove the other red clamp from the formerly dead battery.

Once the car is turned back on, can I immediately get back on the road?

Yes. In fact, you actually need to drive the car around in order for the battery to continue to charge. Make sure to do so for at least 30 minutes — or you might have a second go-round with the jumper cables. 

What if my car battery dies again after jumping it?

Some reasons why your battery may have died again

  • You didn’t let it charge long enough

  • The battery is too old to hold a charge anymore 

  • The battery was drained by the electrical system being left on

  • There are issues with the car’s charging system 

If your battery’s below 11.9 v (or volts) — which can be tested with a multimeter or by your local mechanic — then it’s time to let that battery go. Anything below that level means the battery is fully discharged. Which is not what you want.

What if I need to jump start my car at night? 

If you need a jump start or have another type of car emergency after dark:

  • Stay calm

  • Turn on your hazard lights 

  • Share your location with someone 

  • Call a 24-hour towing service

  • Stay inside your car and be alert

What type of preventative maintenance can I do to keep my car healthy?

To keep your car maintained and avoid any unnecessary accidents, follow these tips

theSkimm 

A car emergency, like needing a jump start, can happen at any place or any time. (We agree, on the way to brunch is terrible timing.) But by knowing how to handle these situations — and staying on top of your maintenance — you and your car can keep it rollin’.

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