A Jump Start Won't Help If Your Car Stops Running While You're Driving It

Image: Getty (Getty Images)
Image: Getty (Getty Images)

I have a lot of experience jump starting cars because I have a long history of driving shitboxes,I’m usually too cheap to buy brand new batteries, and I’m the kind of forgetful that leaves headlights and dome lights on. Please let my lifetime of experience help guide you in your next vehicle breakdown. Jumper cables or a convenient jump box are definitely the kinds of tools you should keep in your arsenal if you’re like me, but they aren’t a magic talisman to ward off vehicle failure conditions. If you’re out driving and your car quits, it doesn’t need a jump.

Far too often I’ve seen cars sitting on the side of the interstate or at an intersection, face to face, connected by the red and black cables of battery revivification. This seems to happen at least once a month, if not more frequently, and it’s annoying that more people don’t know enough about cars to know they’re wasting their time. If you’re sitting at a red light and your car conks out, or if you’re driving on the interstate and the systems die, you don’t need a jump start. More than likely your battery didn’t cause your car’s failure, and if it did, there are larger problems at play here.

Jump starts are great for when your battery doesn’t have enough charge in it to start the car after it’s been sitting. Maybe your car has been sitting with an electrical drain, or it’s really early on a winter morning and the temperature is too cold for your battery to work effectively. Sure, pop it on a jump box or call a friend to give you a battery hit. That’s the time when a jump will be effective, when the car has sat for a bit and won’t start.


Once your car is running, the alternator is charging up the battery and providing enough juice to keep all of the car’s systems operational. The battery basically just acts as a reservoir in the electrical system to get the car running. Once the car is running, the battery is, more or less, along for the ride. If there’s an electrical issue while you’re driving and you start noticing the lights on your dash fading, or the radio is acting weird, you might have an alternator issue that will cause the car to stop running. This can’t be fixed with a jump start, as the car will just fail again as soon as the battery is out of juice.

Image: Bradley Brownell
Image: Bradley Brownell

This all came to a head for me when I rented a big U-Haul box truck last week to move my house across town. After finishing the move I stopped at a gas station to replenish the 15 miles worth of gasoline I’d used in the big 200,000-mile Ford E-series in order to return it and not get dinged for fuel. I put four gallons in it just to be safe, and went to start it up, but nothing happened. I got lights on the dash and a single underwhelming click when I turned the key, but it didn’t even try to turn over the engine.

U-Haul sent out a professional roadside assistance person to help me. To her credit, she was very nice and was just doing her job, but I rolled my eyes when she pulled out the portable jump box and hooked it up. After seven attempts of shuffling the cable clips around and asking me to turn the key again, she gave up and said I would have to wait for her to go get a new battery and come back. Not wanting to sit at a gas station for an hour in 95-degree heat, I offered that a new battery definitely wouldn’t help. Her jump box was showing a full battery already and the starter wasn’t even engaging.

Thankfully I was able to convince her that the truck wouldn’t be fixed with a battery swap and she got a truck to tow it back to the yard while I took an Uber back to my car and asked the store manager to refund my rental fee for the inconvenience caused. I was certainly irritated, but nobody involved was at fault, so I didn’t go Karen mode on anyone, and still got what I wanted.

Jumper cables wouldn’t have helped here, and they won’t help you if you’re stuck on the side of the road. The best move is to just make sure you have an active and up-to-date AAA roadside assistance account if you’re going to drive shitboxes like I do. That little silver card is worth its weight in gold.

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