Car Stalls While Driving: Why it Happens, What To Do & How to Prevent It

It’s a classic nightmare scenario: driving along with your mind on your errands and dinner later tonight … and your car stalls while you’re driving, right in the middle of the road!

Or, you try to leave an intersection when the light turns green and find your car just went dead on you, out of the blue.

Hopefully, this has never happened to you – and hopefully it never will – but it’s good to be ready just in case it ever does. That’s what we’re here for!

Broken down car being pulled onto a tow truck

In this article, we’re going to look first at what steps you need to take to ensure your safety if your car were to ever stall while you’re in the middle of a drive. This can be a potentially dangerous situation, so you should certainly not take it lightly!

Then, we’ll take a look at the possible causes of your car stalling while you’re driving. There are a lot of them, and the more you know about them, the better prepared you will be.

We’ll try to lay them out logically for you so that when you start repairs or talk to your shop, you’ll know exactly where to start from.

If Your Car Stalls While Driving, Safety First!

When a car engine stalls, the car’s accessories also fail, as they draw power from the engine. That means your power steering assist and the power assist for your brakes fail.

You’ll still be able to steer your car if it was moving when the engine cut out, but it will be much, much more difficult for you to do so.

If you were stopped or idling when the car died, you may not be able to budge the wheel. Your brakes will still work, but they’ll be really hard to push down.

On the bright side, though, your leg may get a good workout as you bring the car to a stop!

What To Do If Your Car Stalls While Driving

  • If you are able to, steer the car to the shoulder or another safe spot out of the traffic flow.
  • If you’re stranded in the middle of the road and aren’t able to coast over to the side, turn your hazard lights or emergency flashers on immediately. Remain in the car! (An emergency kit for cars will come in very handy in such situations).
  • If you are stopped in traffic, do not exit the car! Leave your seatbelt on and call roadside assistance (if you have such coverage) with a cell phone, or wait for a law-enforcement professional to help you. Getting out of a vehicle while it is stopped in traffic is extremely dangerous!

I’m Safely Out of Traffic, Now What?

Once you’re safely out of traffic and can get out of the car without putting your own safety or that of anyone else around you at the time at risk, try to restart your car.

If it does happen to restart and you’re very close to home, you may wish to just drive straight home. Then, you can make an appointment with your shop or start your troubleshooting in your very own driveway.

If you’re too far from home to risk another stall, drive to the nearest parking lot and leave the car there.

In case the car won’t restart, you’re going to need a tow. For this, you’ll need to contact a professional towing company to help. Having a friend drag you with a rope is never recommended, and can damage your car’s transmission.

Why Did My Car Stall While I Was Driving?

There are many reasons a car engine may stall in the middle of driving, but nearly all of them can be traced back to the lack of one of three things: lack of air, a fuel shortage, or trouble making a spark.

If any of those critical players leave the internal-combustion game, the engine can stall.

There are also a few mechanical reasons your car may quit on you in the middle of a drive; we’ll cover a couple of those as well, although they’re far less common.

We’ll start with lack of fuel, since that list holds the most obvious and most simple-to-fix cause: an empty gas tank.

Lack of Fuel

Problems with your car’s fuel delivery system will shut an engine down very quickly. Here are the most common reasons your engine might get starved of fuel and conk out on you:

  • You’re simply out of gas. Hey, it happens to the best of us! If you’re very near a freeway exit, you may be be able to walk to a gas station for a gas can and a few gallons of fuel, although many experts recommend against this. In these cases, your best bet is to call a friend or roadside assistance.
  • Your fuel pump has died. Have you noticed any warning signs?
  • Your fuel pressure regulator quit. The failure may have been preceded by some of these symptoms.
  • The fuel filter is really old and has become clogged or blocked. A fuel filter is necessary to screen out any debris from your gas tank before the fuel is delivered to your engine, but it’s a part that many of us forget exists – until it’s really old and gets clogged! Check out common symptoms of a bad fuel filter here, to know if yours is running right.

Lack of Air

Gas and diesel engines need air in order to burn the fuel that your fuel pump and fuel pressure regulator are delivering.

Interruptions in the air flow mean the engine can’t breathe, and not enough air means the engine will quite literally choke.

Here are some of the reasons your engine may not be getting the air it needs:

  • Your car’s air filter is really dirty and has become clogged enough to choke the engine. Or, on a car that hasn’t been driven for a long time, an animal has made a nest in your air filter box and clogged the air flow when the nest debris shifted around.
  • The MAF or MAP sensor, which helps control the air flow rate into your engine, is faulty and it’s not giving the engine enough air.

Lack of Spark

There’s no fire without a spark, the song goes!

In gas engines, fuel and air are useless without a spark to burn the fuel.

Problems with your car’s ignition system will bring your trip to a halt pretty quickly. These include issues with your car’s electrical system, which is what generates those sparks.

Note: diesel engines don’t need an outside spark, but ignite their fuel with compression alone. So, what can go wrong with the spark your engine needs?

Mechanical Reasons for Stalling

Issues with air, spark, or fuel supply are by far the most common reasons for your car to stall while you’re driving it, but there are also a few mechanical reasons the engine may quit on you.

Here are two of those possibilities:

  • A problem with the torque converter on an automatic-transmission car can stall the engine. This is a big repair that will require the assistance of a transmission specialist.
  • If you drive a stick shift car, you’re probably already aware that being too quick with the clutch when pulling away from a stop can cause the engine to stall. Coming to a stop without putting the car in neutral can do the same thing, too. You may need to ask a stick-shift driving friend to give you a brush-up on techniques!

Moving Forward With Repairs

As you’ve seen, there’s a whole bunch of different reasons that could be causing your car to stall out while you’re driving.

If you do your own car repairs, you’re now well-prepared to start troubleshooting and get to the bottom of what’s causing this yourself.

On the other hand, if you rely on a trusted shop to repair your car, you’re now also going to be better prepared as well, because you now know what to expect and you now have a much better idea about what might be causing all of this to happen.

Scope of Possible Repairs

Some of the above repairs are relatively simple.

For example, replacing a fuel filter only requires some caution taken with spilled fuel as the replacement is made.

It’s usually an easy-to-reach part, and so requires less labor time than some other types of repairs. Anyone can swap out a dirty and clogged air filter!

Also, fixing your empty gas tank may only involve a long walk or returning a favor for the friend that bailed you out. But, don’t make a habit of running out of gas! Multiple instances of running your tank dry can damage your car’s fuel pump.

Some of the other causes for a stalled engine can be more complicated, though, depending on the car.

For example, on Subarus, replacing an alternator is relatively quick due to the handy location near the top of the engine. However, on some front-wheel-drive cars, the alternator can be tricky to reach, increasing labor costs if a shop does your work.

Fuel pumps live inside your gas tank, so replacing one may require your shop to lower or remove the gas tank for access, which can involve a lot of labor. Unfortunately, fuel pump repair can be expensive due to these complications.

How Can I Prevent My Car from Stalling While Driving Again in the Future?

In some cases, an engine stall is preventable.

While you can’t predict when your alternator or fuel pump might fail, these failures are often preceded by warning signs that signal to you that something is wrong, so you’ll need to be attentive to these signals whenever they appear.

So, the next time they happen, don’t ignore engine surging or sputtering or electrical quirks such as flickering headlights or a mysteriously dead battery.

Another few easy preventative tips for you to keep in mind are:

  • Keep up with your air filter change schedule!
  • Cultivate a habit of filling up your gas tank when it reaches the ¼-full mark so you’re never caught empty.
  • Protect your automatic transmission’s torque converter with transmission fluid changes as recommended by your car manufacturer.

Always remember that regular maintenance on your car is the best prevention against stalling in the middle of rush hour traffic!

Jennifer Jordan

In the mix of a male dominated industry, Jennifer is our go-to gal for all your car related questions. Besides all the valuable work and insights she contributes to, Jennifer runs a website - and an active Facebook community - called 'Ask Jenny About Cars' where she helps many people with their car-buying and car ownership decisions – providing advice, reassurance and research help to friends, family, and clients on all topics concerning cars. She has a wealth of knowledge and you can rely on her to explain everything in simple language that even a novice can understand.

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