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What to Do When the Check Engine Light Comes on When Traveling

What to do when check engine light comes onWhat to Do When Check Engine Light Comes On

The check engine light can be nerve-racking.  It turns on and you have no idea why.  There are so many things that can be wrong with a car.  Is it going to fall apart?!

When Keri and I took a road trip, her check engine light popped on just when we were about as far from home as we could be on this trip.  The same thing happened to Tiff and me.  As soon as we drove to Austin from Dallas, the light popped on.

Luckily, the check engine light has a few very specific meanings and isn’t as scary as it seems.  My father was a mechanic and taught me a few things about cars and travel.

First of all, if the light is flashing, it means things could be much more serious.  So if your light is flashing, please don’t risk it and have it looked at!

Most checked engine light problems are issues that affect your performance and fuel mileage, but don’t mean the car is ready to fall apart.  Note: I do not mean that you should drive around like this for ages.  I just mean you should be able to make it home fine and do not need to immediately pull over and call for a tow.

But then follow these steps:

1. Check your gas cap

What to do when check engine light comes on

The problem could be as simple as issues with your gas cap.  Is it on all the way?  Is it on at all?

When I was passing through New Jersey, the attendant at the gas station never put the cap back on.  When my check engine light came on, I checked that immediately.  Unfortunately, the New Jersey turnpike has awful tolls, so it ended up being cheaper to head to an auto parts store than to circle back!

If your cap is on fine, it can still be your gas cap.  If air pressure builds up, it can set off the check engine light sensor too.  Try unscrewing it, hanging on for a little bit, and then screwing it back on.

You’ll need to drive a while for the check engine light to shut off after that (20-30 miles sometimes!), but if you are in the  middle of a long stretch of a road trip, you should be able to see it go off at some point if this was the issue.

2. Consult your car manual

Hopefully you keep it in your driver’s glove box!  My assumptions here are that your problem could be a fuel cap, O2 sensor, airflow problem, fuel pump, ignition cois, spark plug, or catalytic converter.   Here is an AutoZone article I found explaining them.

If something else is listed in your manual as being a non-flashing check engine light issue, then this post does not necessarily apply (just because I don’t want to give advice about potential issues I don’t know anything about).  But you can  drive with these items listed with no to minimal damage for a little while.  (Spark plugs, ignition coils and O2 sensors are the biggest worry, but your car should be okay in the short-term).

3. Head over to AutoZone (or another car parts place)

What to do when check engine light comes on

Places like AutoZone have a check-engine light machine.  They can figure out what your issue is and how serious it is.

They can also tell you if your issue is a you-should-get-fixed-while-on-your-trip issue, or if you could drive to Dallas from Austin with no huge issues.

AutoZone does this for free which is much better than the $70+ some mechanics charge for the same thing.

I’m particularly a fan of AutoZone because when I’ve had parts crap out, they’ve assisted me in putting the new part in my car.  No mechanic stop necessary!  (These were easy to replace parts, so I wouldn’t expect them to help me install a–let’s say–catalytic converter).

Important: I am not intending the take away of this article to be–oh sure, just go ahead and keep driving with that issue.  I mean that you do not have to immediately stop what you are doing on vacation and spend hours in a repair shop.  Most of the issues with a non-flashing repair light are non-emergency, and you can easily find that out for free from auto parts stores like AutoZone.

 

 

About Jeanne Marie Hoffman

Former bartender, still a geek. One equal part each cookies, liberty, football, music, travel, libations. Stir vigorously. +Jeanne Marie Hoffman Jeanne on Twitter

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7 comments

  1. I always pump my own gas just so I know the gas cap has been put on properly. My owners manual tells you to make sure you hear it click three or four times before you shut the gas tank door.

    Another piece of advice is when you buy a new car the owners manual is required reading. Preferably as soon as you get home with the car. My Dad taught all of his kids to work on our own cars. They are too complicated now but I can trouble shoot my car based on how its acting. Repair shops can’t try to pull a fast one on me because I normally know whats the problem before I get there.

  2. I calibrate check engine lights for a living.

    “First of all, if the light is flashing, it means things could be much more serious.”

    If the check engine light is flashing, your car is misfiring at a high enough rate to melt the catalysts. Think $1000 minimum. Pull over. Maybe try a restart, But get it towed in if flashes again.

    For a solid check engine light, I’d just continue driving and when passing an Autozone, have the code read.

    And if your fuel economy doesn’t go down, I doubt I’d even do that.

    Excellent helpful article.

  3. @wendy
    Most, if not all gas stations in New Jersey are full service. And I’ve run into more full than self in Oregon as well

  4. I live in Ohio and here you will have trouble finding a station that is NOT self service. Even if they pumped the gas I would still pull out of the station and check the gas cap to make sure it was tightened down. I’m picky when it comes to my car.

  5. my engine light turned on after driving a little note It will turn on them turn off and so on as you drive not really fast and didn’t happen at Any spesivic time

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