How to start a car if you’re just learning to drive

new driver

Starting a car for the first time can be challenging, especially if you’re just learning to drive. Luckily, the process is designed to be easy to do whether you have an automatic car or a manual one. This article will walk you through both options – start with step 1.

Start a car

Sit in the driver’s seat and buckle up.

Put on the seat belt. Never drive without wearing a seat belt!

Put the key in the ignition.

The ignition lock is usually located on the right below the steering wheel. It is a round metal circle with an elongated slot in the middle. Once you find it, insert the key all the way into the ignition. For most vehicles, you must use the key that came with the vehicle. You can often use a copy as well, as long as it’s done properly. Some newer models no longer have a traditional key. You just push a button to start these cars; this is usually labeled “Start engine” and installed in a conspicuous place.

When starting an automatic car, put the lever in “P” or “N”.

Automatic refers to the car’s transmission. It means you don’t have to change gear yourself – the car does it automatically. If the car has an automatic transmission, then there are only two pedals. In some automatic cars, there is a flat rubber pedal instead of the clutch pedal; that’s a dead pedal, it’s just there for you to put your foot on and has no function. Automatic transmissions usually have a neutral safety switch. This prevents the car from starting unless the gear lever is in the “P” or “N” position (“Park” or “Neutral”). This will prevent the car from starting in gear.

When starting a manual car, place the gear lever in “N” or neutral.

If the car is manual, you have three pedals; the leftmost pedal is the clutch pedal. It is important that you start the car in neutral – meaning that it is not in gear. When it’s in gear, meaning power is being sent from the engine through the transmission to the wheels, the car will jump forward when you start it and then stall again. Some cars can also be damaged if you start them in gear. You can check if you’re in gear by gently shaking the gear lever; if it moves freely, then it is not in gear. If the lever is stuck as if latched, then a gear is engaged. Step on the clutch with your foot and move the gear lever into neutral before starting the car.

Turn the ignition key to start the car.

You have to move the key past two breakpoints and push against a spring-loaded third to start the car. Use the same hand that you used to insert the key, and be careful not to pull the key out as you turn it. Release the key once you’ve started the car. If you continue to turn the key while the engine is already running, you will hear a rather nasty noise, which is caused by the gears in the starter and the gears in the engine rubbing against each other. This is of course very bad for the car. The first two positions of the ignition switch are labeled “ACC” (accessories) and “ON”. In the first position you can use the radio and electrical accessories; When set to “ON” the key will spring back once the car has started.

If the engine does not start, try the following tricks in this order.

Sometimes when you turn the key in the ignition, even a perfectly working car can’t start. But don’t worry, it’s not the end of the world. If the key does not turn past the first or second position and the steering wheel does not move, then the steering wheel lock is activated. A steering wheel lock is a precaution to prevent the car from starting unattended. These cars require you to shake or rock the steering wheel back and forth to turn the key. If the car won’t start, try pressing the brake and/or clutch pedal firmly while turning the key. This is a feature to prevent newer cars from driving once they have been turned on. If the car still won’t start, try turning the key the other way. Some older cars may not follow the conventions of newer cars.

Put yourself in gear carefully.

Some manual transmissions are equipped with a clutch cut-off switch, which shuts off the electrical system should the clutch not be fully depressed; this means you have to depress the clutch to start the car. If the car is running, don’t release the clutch immediately when the gear is in gear and you’re not accelerating. That would cause sudden thrust and likely stall the car. You can prevent this by making sure you’re not in gear when you start the car.

Look in the mirror and pay attention to people, objects, or other cars and drive carefully.

Obey all road rules and drive defensively.

start a car

Troubleshooting

Cars fail to start for a variety of reasons.

Read your car’s manual and take it to a mechanic if possible. If you need the car really fast or don’t have access to a mechanic, there are also a few things you can try yourself.

Learn how to start a car in winter.

If the car won’t start and it’s very cold, you may need to “pump” the accelerator or add extra gas to the engine to make it easier to start. Whether or not you can do this depends on whether your car has an injection or carburetor engine. If the car was built before 1990, you should assume that it has a carbureted engine. A carburetor is a mechanical device that mixes air and gasoline and feeds the mixture into the engine. With these cars, it can help if you “pump” the accelerator pedal a few times before starting the car. When you pump, the carburetor allows a small amount of gasoline into the engine. Every time you step on the gas pedal, some liquid gasoline is injected into the engine. Be careful when pumping the gas in a cold car. If you pump too much fuel into the engine before you start it can “flood”, i.e. be filled with too much fuel and not enough air. This makes the mixture difficult to ignite as the liquid does not burn easily. If the engine floods, fully depress the accelerator and restart the engine. A fully depressed pedal allows extra air into the engine to dry the fuel. You may need to crank longer for the engine to start. When the engine runs again, release the gasoline.

If your car won’t start or make a sound, you should consider replacing the battery

A dead battery is by far the most common reason why an engine doesn’t work. In order for the car to run again, you have to bridge the battery. Or you swap out the dead battery and replace it with a new one.

If the car makes a clicking noise but won’t start, you probably need to replace the alternator.

Check the alternator with a simple test to find out if you need to replace it.

If the battery and alternator are fine but the car still won’t start, you should consider replacing the starter motor.

This is a repair that you can do yourself or have your mechanic do.

drive a car

Tips

Once you’ve started the engine, before you drive off, look around to see if there are any small animals like cats hiding nearby or under your car. To prevent the car from rolling when parked, apply the handbrake before releasing the clutch. Some cars (e.g. Renault) have an immobilizer. To start, a button on the key fob must first be pressed. Make sure you have the correct key. Newer cars are secured with anti-theft protection. On a diesel vehicle, you first want to warm up the spark plugs (GM, Ford) or intake air heater (Dodge). This is usually indicated by a light on the dashboard which goes out after a few seconds when the engine is preheated. First, get to know your vehicle. It saves you time and nerves if you know exactly where to insert the key in advance.

Warnings

On manual shifts, watch out for sudden movements when you engage the clutch. If it’s in gear and you start the engine, it will jump forward when the engine “fires”. This can destroy property or even harm a living being. Practice with these cars and understand how a manual shifter works before driving in places where you could cause an accident or harm someone. Cars and other vehicles are not toys. In the hands of a person who has not learned how to drive or is otherwise unqualified to drive, they can cause serious injury or even death. Never start a vehicle unless you are fit to drive. If you are driving for the first time, do so under the supervision of a competent co-driver. If the car won’t start, don’t just keep trying to start the car. Try not to start a car for more than 60 seconds in 5 minutes. The starter must cool down in between. If you don’t follow this rule, you will likely burn out the starter. The starter is like a small electric motor that provides the initial ignition for the real engine. Should it become damaged, the only way to get the car started is with an expensive replacement. If the engine doesn’t start after 60 seconds, something is wrong and you need professional help.

Daniel Carter

Daniel Carter is a senior writer and editor at Usevoucher. His work has been featured by The Associated Press, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune and Reuters. He holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When he’s not writing about money, Carter enjoys traveling around the world.