You're driving along the open road without a care in the world, blasting favorite tunes and looking forward to a chill afternoon with friends.
All of a sudden, you notice that the temperature display is inching toward the hot zone. In the worst-case scenario, smoke may start billowing out from beneath your hood.
Aside from panicking, do you know what to do if your car overheats? Don't worry. Even if you aced your driver's test, you may not be prepared to handle an emergency situation like this one. Here's what you need to know.
Why Is My Car Overheating in the First Place?
Your coolant level may be low — If you have a leak anywhere in the coolant system, levels could get dangerously low. You can check the level yourself by taking off the radiator cap. The coolant should be filled nearly to the brim. Don't remove the cap when your car overheats, though. Coolant is under pressure, and you could easily burn yourself. Wait a half hour after turning off your engine to check.
You have a stuck thermometer — The thermometer regulates the amount of coolant needed as your car exerts itself. If the thermometer isn't working correctly, your car could overheat.
There's something blocking your radiator— Leaves, pine needles, even a plastic bag could get stuck in the front grill of the car and prevent your radiator from doing its job correctly.
The radiator fans aren't working — If your car overheats when it's idling, rather than while you're driving along, a broken radiator fan could be the problem. The radiator fans normally kick in when you idle your car because there is no longer air moving across the grill to cool the engine.
Is an Overheating Car Such a Big Deal?
Definitely. If you continue to drive a car that's overheating, you could destroy your engine. Always treat this situation as an emergency.
What Steps Do I Take If My Car Overheats?
1. Turn on the Heat
If you notice your thermometer pointing toward H, the first thing you can try is turning off the AC and cranking the heat. This may sound counterintuitive, but heat generated by the engine is what keeps you warm. By diverting that heat to the interior of the cab, you may be able to keep your car from overheating just long enough to drive it to an auto repair shop.
2. Find a Safe Place to Pull Over
Once you've pulled over, turn off the car and wait 15 minutes to see if the temperature gauge starts inching back into a normal range. As mentioned above, never attempt to pop the hood or remove the radiator cap until the engine has had time to cool off first.
3. If You Have Coolant, Add Some
Once the engine has cooled off, you can top off the coolant if you notice it's low. If your car overheats, though, you really need to get it to the shop as soon as possible — ideally, the same day — so a mechanic can properly diagnose and fix the problem.
4. Restart Your Engine
If you're an inexperienced driver, you may just want to call a towing service and have them bring the car to the shop. If you choose not to do that, you can attempt to drive the car to an auto repair shop yourself, making sure that the temperature gauge doesn't move back into the red.
Why not Brush Up on the Basics?
If dealing with car problems makes you worried, maybe it's time to schedule a defensive driving course. You'll gain confidence behind the wheel, and you may even get a break on your auto insurance!