When jump-starting a vehicle, one first connects the positive and negative terminals between the two cars: positive to positive and negative (good battery) to a bolt head on the vehicle with the dead battery. Next comes the actual jump-starting part - turning the engine of the vehicle with the dead battery. My question is does the the engine of the car with the good battery have to be running before one attempts starting the engine of the vehicle with the dead battery, and if yes, then why?

  • 1
    This question is better off on Mechanics.stackexchange.com. Aside from that, yes, you need it on, because of how batteries get charged. You need a higher voltage to charge a battery. While a new battery at 100% charge might be a good 13v, it won't properly charge a dead battery and you run the risk of draining the good battery as well.
    – cde
    Commented Apr 5, 2014 at 22:18

1 Answer 1


Your description of connecting the two cars is correct. I want to emphasize making the last connection to the "bolt head" you mention. Any large piece of unpainted metal will do. The reason for this is to keep the resulting spark away from the battery. If they battery has been venting fumes, the spark can (although it's very unlikely) cause them to ignite and explode.

Back to your question: It is better to have the "good" car's engine running, because its alternator will be able to provide current to the "dead" car in addition to keeping the good car's battery charged.

Once the cables are connected you can wait a few minutes for the dead car's battery to charge up a bit. Often, however, the good car will often be able to provide enough power to start the dead car right away, without waiting.

Also, when the dead car actually cranks up, its own alternator can cause a significant spike into both car's systems. Now that cars rely so heavily on digital electronics, this spike can damage the controlling computer. It is wise to turn on the headlights of both cars before starting the bad car. Any surge will be dampened by the light bulbs, which will flow more current when the voltage increases.

(If you're having to wait for the dead battery to charge, keep the headlights off while you're waiting.)

Both of these events (the exploding battery and the fried computer) are really unlikely, and people jump cars without these precautions all the time. But, in this case, it doesn't hurt to be safe :)

Finally, after disconnecting the cables, make sure the previously-dead car stays running for a while! You need to give the battery some time to charge up again.

Good luck!

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    In fact the user manual for my car (BMW) specifically instructs turning on the headlights, not just the sidelights, when jump-starting another vehicle, for the reason above.
    – peterG
    Commented Apr 5, 2014 at 22:35
  • Interesting, @peterG, good to know!
    – bitsmack
    Commented Apr 5, 2014 at 23:26
  • There are cars that will program themselves into a "limp-home" mode requiring an expensive visit to the dealer if you draw the 12V bus down too far. Running the engine may prevent that.
    – Spehro Pefhany
    Commented Apr 6, 2014 at 1:23
  • Actually, the batteries (if they are in ok condition) will do more to contain the spike than the headlights do. What you shouldn't do is to disconnect the cables with the recipient engine running if there's any suspicion that the recipient battery might be faulty in addition to having no charge. When the cables are removed with the recipient engine running, the faulty recipient battery won't contain the spike caused by the alternator, and the recipient car electronics may fry. So, if the recipient battery is in unknown condition, just charge it for few minutes and try starting it again.
    – juhist
    Commented Feb 21, 2018 at 14:21
  • Also, modern LED headlights may not be as good in containing spikes as traditional halogen bulbs are...
    – juhist
    Commented Feb 21, 2018 at 14:24

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