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In some newer cars, the ignition key is fading away from popular usage, being replaced by the more sleek-looking push-start buttons. The key has been a part of automotive life for decades, and you’ll have a key to start your own key.
Sometimes this key gets stuck. It can happen to anyone in any vehicle. It might leave you wondering what to do: what might have caused this problem? How can you possibly start the car without the key? Surely you should never leave the keys in the car? Should you call out a mechanic to come and look at it?
We hope to answer those questions for you in this article and help put your mind at ease.
What Might Have Caused This Problem?
There are a few well-known causes of this. We’ll go through them here. See whether or not any of these situations apply to you.
We’ll begin with the worst-case scenario and work down to the simpler solutions.
The ignition cylinder itself has a problem – In this situation, it’s best not even to bother trying to do anything about it yourself. Call out your mechanic immediately. The ignition cylinder can be a complex piece of kit, and if you aren’t careful, you may end up locking yourself out of your vehicle for good.
The key has broken inside the ignition – The likelihood of this having happened will increase, depending on whether or not the key you’re using is the original. That is, from the manufacturer – or a duplicate. Duplicate keys can sometimes be made of less sturdy materials than the originals. That’s not to say that your manufacturer-produced key won’t break, though – it could still be the problem.
If you think you might have noticed some damage to the key before you put it into the ignition, this may be the problem. You can try to remove it yourself by purchasing a specialist set of tools, creatively called a broken key extractor toolset. You’ll probably pay about $15-$25 for this. If this doesn’t work, you should call out a mechanic or a locksmith to help you, explaining the problem before they arrive, so they have the best chance of being able to help.
There is dirt or debris inside the keyhole – Your car key goes in through the keyhole, and sometimes this area can clog up with dirt and debris. This is especially possible if you keep your keys in a dirty area, such as an unclean worktop or the mucky pocket of your overalls. The dirt from the key could then transfer into the keyhole. If it felt like you had to force the key into the keyhole a little bit when you started the car, this could be an indication of this problem.
If the key is stuck, it could be wedged in by a small rock, section of dirt, or another piece of debris. To get it fixed, you should first try gently turning the key forwards and backward, seeing if this loosens it enough to pull it out. Should this fail, you may want to try some WD40 or similar lubricative spray, before again trying to wiggle the key out. If none of this works, unfortunately, you’ll have to call out your mechanic or locksmith to fix it.
A dead battery – Although this won’t be a feature of older cars, newer ones are often capable of preventing the key from being removed if there isn’t enough power coming from the battery.
If you have a voltmeter, put it across the battery to see if it’s still working. You can also try turning on your headlights. If no light appears at the front of the car, unfortunately, your battery is dead. You’ll need to jumpstart it and get the battery (and possibly the alternator) replaced as soon as possible.
The steering wheel lock is on – A steering wheel lock is an anti-theft device installed on pretty much every car. If you have tried to turn the steering wheel before the engine turns on, you will probably find that it has locked. If it has, you’ll notice that you won’t be able to turn the key or the steering wheel.
To turn the steering lock off, gently rock the wheel from left to right, turning the key in the ignition at the same time. It should release, often with a bit of a jerk. This is nothing to worry about. It’s the normal procedure of what to do in the case of the steering lock coming on.
The transmission isn’t in “park” or “neutral” – Most cars with an automatic transmission come with a safety feature that prevents you from removing the ignition key when the car is still in “drive.” If this feature wasn’t there, you’d find the car driving off when you came back to it in the morning, as soon as you turned the key in the ignition.
This is one of the simpler ones to fix. Look to see if the car is in “park” or “neutral.” If it seems to be, take it out of the gear, put it back in, and keep your foot on the brake pedal, just to make sure it’s properly in. After you’ve done this, you should be able to remove the key.
Make sure the car is fully off – There are several stages in the ignition of a vehicle. These are labeled around the keyhole. Which label your key is pointing at represents the current condition of the car. You’ll probably see four labels that read something like: “LOCK,” “OFF” (or “ACC”), “ON,” and “START.”
You’ll only be able to remove your key if it’s pointed at the “LOCK” label. In all the other car labels, you’ll find that the car is still “on,” in one way or another. Even the “OFF” position represents the engine itself being off. The battery could still be providing power to accessories (which is what the alternative label “ACC” stands for).
How Can You Possibly Start the Car Without the Key?
Technically, it is possible to start a car without the key, but it’s somewhat legally frowned upon. It’s possible to rewire the ignition system to bypass the key entirely, enabling you to start the car manually. This is often called hotwiring.
It’s caused countless cars being stolen over the last century and, as a result, many car manufacturers purposefully make it basically impossible to hotwire their car. It can also be potentially dangerous. We wouldn’t recommend trying this approach.
Surely You Should Never Leave the Keys in a Car?
We agree. Leaving your keys in a car leaves it vulnerable to theft. Even if the car doesn’t start, an opportunistic thief who noticed the gleam through the window might jump at the opportunity.
If you can’t get the key out, for whatever reason, we would recommend doing what you can to hide it. Perhaps the best option would be to cover your car with a car cover.
Should I Call Out a Mechanic?
If you can’t get the key out with any of the techniques mentioned above, it’s time for professional help. How much this will cost you depends on your region and local rates.
All being well, though, after doing this, you’ll have a fully functioning car again.
Car ignition systems are becoming more and more complex. Keys can be tricky but have caused much more good than harm. In the future, we likely won’t even use them for starting our cars, but in the meantime, we hope you manage to get your current vehicle fixed and running again soon.