How Long Can a Car Sit Without Being Driven?

Many vehicles are driven daily, or at the very least weekly. However, on occasion, circumstances like a long vacation, non-seasonal compatibility (e.g., convertibles in winter), or a switch to working from home may sideline a vehicle for an extended period. Parking a car for a few days will rarely lead to a mechanical issue, but at what point will disuse begin to negatively impact how the car operates? No surprise, the answer is: It depends.

how long can a car sit without being driven

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, light-duty vehicles such as cars, pickups, and vans are driven an average of 11,500 miles a year. This number will most certainly drop for 2020, given that many school and work commutes ceased during the spring and summer months with only a minimal uptick expected for the second half of the year. That means lots of cars off the roads and just sitting in garages, driveways, or on the street. 

If you’re not looking to store your vehicle indefinitely, which involves different procedures and prep work, experts recommend vehicles be driven every two to three weeks. Idling the car for a few minutes might seem like a good compromise, and the engine will indeed get to normal operating temperature after about 10 minutes or so, but you won’t be achieving much else. 

Instead, drive the vehicle for at least 10 miles with some highway speeds included, if possible. Even if your route involves little more than merging onto the interstate, taking the next off-ramp, and circling back home, the short drive will do plenty to keep your vehicle running correctly. 

Here’s what happens when you don’t drive your vehicle often enough:

  • Batteries will lose their charge. Just like the AAs in your long-forgotten CD player, batteries will slowly lose their charge due to disuse. In a vehicle that has been parked for a long time, attempting to restart the engine will cause the battery to drain even more. The battery may well lose too much of its power that it’ll require a jump-start or replacement. Driving allows the battery to recharge and maintain its expected battery life.
  • Tires will lose air pressure or flat-spot. Cars are heavy. Compact sedans weigh more than 2,500 pounds, and midsize SUVs can tip the scales at twice that. If they don’t move, all that weight rests on whatever side of the tire is in contact with the ground. So, not only has the tire begun to lose air, which happens faster during cold weather, but it gets flat spots. If you catch uneven wear early enough and add air pressure, the tires can round out again. Otherwise, you’re looking at permanent tire damage, which will create vibrations when driving and potentially lead to unsafe steering and handling situations.
  • Oils and other fluids will deteriorate. Vehicles have one purpose: to be driven. And their engine fluids are developed for that reason. When not in use, these fluids will go stale similar to how a carbonated beverage will go flat if you don’t drink it soon enough. During a drive, these fluids will reach operating temperatures to flow and keep seals and gaskets lubricated. In turn, the transmission, brakes, belts, power steering, and even the air conditioning will continue to function as intended.
  • Fuel can go bad, too. A rule of thumb with internal combustion engines is to keep the fuel tank at least a quarter full. The reason being that an empty tank is more susceptible to moisture. And moisture will lead to corrosion. Condensation can negatively impact engine oil as well. Also, fuel will degrade after about 30 days. After several months, it’s just bad, and you’re better off siphoning it out. Because not only will old fuel lose its ability to ignite the engine properly, deposits may also develop that will damage the fuel system.
  • Pests will move in. Ants. Rodents. Wasps. Like any living thing, they’re just looking for a place to call home. And whether you park your vehicle in a garage or driveway, if it’s not moving, prepare to find squatters. Worst yet, these critters get hungry or may merely be teething. Either way, wires, plastics, and insulation are the first things they’ll gnaw on.
  • Mother Nature. If left to the elements, Mother Nature will be less than nurturing to a seemingly abandoned vehicle. Tree sap and bird droppings will leave lasting damage to the clear coat and paint if not cleaned off. Even with a car cover, wind can cause dirt to rub underneath, or moisture can collect and lead to rust. 

Long-term neglect, even if unintended, will become evident when you do decide to restart your vehicle again. So, consider your vehicle an investment and that every drive you take is a deposit in maintaining a positive account balance. You already know that getting out for some fresh air is good for your health. Likewise, your vehicle will thank you for the joy ride, too.