You may be on a road trip or simply driving around town when suddenly you notice your car is overheating. What should you do?
Assess The Situation
If the temperature gauge is maxed out, if the check engine light is on, or if there is steam coming from under your hood, pull over immediately. Driving your car for even a few more minutes may permanently damage your car's engine.
If you are able to lower your engine's temperature, though, you may be able to make it home in your vehicle. Turn off the air conditioning, as well as all non-essential electrical loads such as the radio or seat heaters. Be sure to drive as slow as possible without endangering traffic. Your engine has to work harder at faster speeds, thus generating more heat. If the temperature gauge continues to climb, pull over to a safe spot, turn off your car, and wait for the engine to cool. Open the hood to expedite cooling.
Check The Coolant
Once you are certain the engine is cool, visibly check the coolant level in the overflow tank or coolant reservoir. Most vehicles allow a visual level check without removing the pressure cap. If you need to remove the radiator cap, be very careful as some residual pressure may remain. Once the cap is removed, look to see if the coolant is full to the bottom of the cap. If not, are there any drips or leaks under the vehicle? Is there a pungent or sweet smell? If you answered yes to either question, you may have an external coolant leak that needs repair before driving anywhere. If you are sure the level is simply low, just top up using your car manufacturer's recommended coolant. If you don't know which coolant to use, you can always add plain water temporarily, and replace it with coolant when you get home. Once the coolant tank is filled, you are probably safe to drive. Have your car checked out by a repair professional if your car overheats again.
If you notice your car overheating, either pull over immediately or do everything you can to lower the engine's temperature, depending on the severity of the situation. Ultimately, check the coolant level, add more if necessary, and have your car assessed by your automotive professional as soon as you can. Ignoring an overheated engine can cause expensive and serious damage. Always keep the number of an emergency roadside service just in case your car has problems.