Locked Your Keys in Your Car? Here’s What to Do Next.

car key fob with keychain

Maybe you were enjoying a casual and carefree day. Or maybe you had too much on your mind. Could have been you were in too much of a hurry. Whatever the case, it happened: you locked your keys in the car. Now a sinking feeling in your stomach tells you that your day is sliding downhill. But that does not have to be the case. You might not make your next appointment on time, but all hope is not lost if your keys are on the wrong side of a locked door.

Here are some tips, some do’s and don’ts, to get your keys out of a locked vehicle.

Avoid the Incident

Right up front and at the risk of offering coulda-shoulda-woulda, told-ya-so advice, let’s hit on some steps that you might take to avoid an issue with keys locked inside your vehicle. What can you do (especially if you have a habit of locking up your keys) to make sure your mistake does not destroy your day or damage your car?

First, how about carrying a duplicate key or a valet key? Kept in a wallet or a purse, an extra key can come in awful handy if you lock your primary key in the car. You could also hide a spare key somewhere on the vehicle. Magnetic key holders can be convenient, but they can also fall off when you hit a bump. Better to secure your spare key with a bolt and wingnut somewhere underneath the vehicle. Chose an inconspicuous location that will not cause damage, such as an exhaust shield or plastic liner. Drill a hole and bolt the key in place. You could also give a spare key to a friend. Someone you trust, someone you could call in a pinch.

Another option is to have your vehicle equipped with a service like OnStar. If you forget your keys before you lock the doors, a simple call can get the doors unlocked remotely. Just make sure you have an activated account or the service will not work.

If your car, truck, or SUV  is equipped with a keyless entry keypad, make sure you can remember the code. One downside to keyless entry using a remote key fob is the tendency to forget other entry methods, like using the key to unlock the trunk (which sometimes leads to a stuck trunk lock cylinder) or failing to memorize the keypad code.

It would be silly to say, “Just don’t forget your keys in the car.” The mistake could happen to anyone. So, better to advise preparedness. Make a plan.

What Not To Do

But… if you do lock your keys inside your car (and because this article is about what to do when you do), let’s look at your options.

First, the bad ones.

Do not try to pry your door open with a crowbar or any other object. The door latch is designed to withstand a violent collision without opening, so anything you do to pry it open will result in only two outcomes: a damaged door and the appearance of trying to steal a car. (Okay, maybe three: you will look quite silly tearing your door apart for nothing). There are ways to get inside. Prying the door open at the seams is not one of them.

You can forget the good ol’ slim jim as well. Gone are the days when the lock mechanism inside a car door was accessible from the outside of the vehicle. Manufacturers have incorporated anti-theft guards inside the door shell that prevent a slim jim (or a coat hanger) from contacting the lock components. Sure, you might get lucky on this vehicle or that by tangling up your break-in tool with some part of the lock mechanism. But you are more likely to break the mechanism than you are to unlock it. And that could prevent any other strategy from working. If your car is decades old, give it a try. If it is not, look for another way in.

What To Do Instead

Better alternatives to prying or slim-jimming do exist. Before you try any of these, do yourself a favor. If you locked your keys in your car, start by checking all of the doors. That may have been your first inclination. But oftentimes it is an overlooked option.

Next, you could call the police or fire department to open your door for you. If you find yourself in an emergency – for instance, a young child or pet is trapped inside in the heat or cold – call 911. It might be necessary to break a window for a quick escape. Otherwise, you could enlist the expertise of a professional locksmith. If you have roadside insurance (AAA or the like) they may be able to send help as well.

But if you want to give it a go on your own, you are going to need a few things. (You might have to beg a ride to the local hardware store to procure some of these items).

  • Stiff steel or aluminum rod
  • Coat hanger or string (a shoelace might do)
  • Plastic wedge, plastic construction shim, inflatable wedge, or screwdriver
  • Rag or towel

With materials in hand, your entry options fall into three categories: pull the lock button, trip the lock switch, or snag the keys. The method you use depends on your specific vehicle. Each of these methods requires that you gain a small amount of access to the inside of your car.

Pry Open the Door

“Wait a minute! You just said, ‘Do not try to pry your door open’”. True. you cannot force your door open to solve your problem. But you can create a small space, an opening at the top of the door (between the door and the roof) through which you can insert something to release the door from the inside. There is a difference.

In order to do this, you will need some sort of wedge to create a separation between the window frame of the door (or the door glass if yours is frameless) and the roof panel. Plastic wedges are available, as are construction shims (plastic ones work best). In a pinch, a screwdriver could do the trick – but the likelihood of damage to your door, window, roof, and rubber weatherstripping goes up significantly with a sharp metal tool like a screwdriver. There are even inflatable wedges made for just this purpose that can be installed and inflated to separate the door and roof.

Slide the wedge between the top of the door and the roof panel, taking care to avoid tearing the weatherstrip. Once the wedge is in place, pry gently but firmly to create an opening. A pair of wedges several inches apart might work better. Some vehicles will take more effort than others. Use a towel to buffer the force against any painted surfaces (or against the edge of the window if you must pry there). Once you can see through the gap, you are ready to employ one of the following methods to unlock the door.

Pull the Lock Button

Look through the driver’s window to determine if the lock button – the one you press to manually lock the door on the inside – is one that you can grab hold of. If the lock button recedes completely into the trim panel when locked, you will not be able to use it to open the door. But if the lock button protrudes from the panel, you may be able to use a stiff metal rod to pull up on the button. A coat hanger can work here as well.

On some cars you will need to put a ninety-degree bend at the end of the rod to catch the button. On others, you will need to form a “V” or a loop to snag it. It might even be possible to lower a string with a noose to grab the button. Make sure the space you create with your wedge(s) is directly above the lock button if you are going to attempt this method.

Trip the Lock Switch

On vehicles where the lock button is inaccessible you will need to try another method. In fact, this might be the easiest method. Look for the “unlock” switch. Set up your wedge(s) in such a way that you can reach the switch with your metal rod. Insert the rod through the opening and press the button. That easy, right? Not always. You will probably have to experiment with different bends in the rod to reach the switch. You might have to try entering from different angles to put enough force on the switch to get it to engage. Patience is key (sorry, though unintended, the pun is appropriate). Unlike pulling up on the lock button, this method requires that the metal rod be strong enough to put force on the switch, so a coat hanger will probably not work.

Snag the Keys

The final method might work when all else fails, though it might require a longer metal rod and a bit more creativity. Here you will have to pry harder to create a large opening. The angle at which you insert the metal rod will be greater and the size of the key (or keys) will be such that more space is needed. With this method you are going fishing for the keyring. On many vehicles this is not possible, but on some it is – depending on where the keys are located.

If you are fortunate enough that your vehicle is fitted with a smart key, you know that the doors will not lock unless you take the key with you. Unfortunately, if you lose that key you could be out hundreds of dollars. And if the system malfunctions, you could be out of luck. So, back to the beginning – don’t lock your keys in your car. If you do, have a backup plan in place. Without one, you just might have to endure all the “I-told-you-sos.”

This article is intended only as a general guidance document and relying on its material is at your sole risk. By using this general guidance document, you agree to defend, indemnify and hold harmless Hogan & Sons Tire and Auto and its affiliates from and against any and all claims, damages, costs and expenses, including attorneys’ fees, arising from or related to your use of this guidance document. To the extent fully permissible under applicable law, Hogan & Sons Tire and Auto makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, as to the information, content, or materials included in this document. This reservation of rights is intended to be only as broad and inclusive as is permitted by the laws of your State of residence.

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