There are few things more unsettling while driving than seeing your temperature gauge's needle ominously wipe its way towards 'Hot'. When it does this suddenly, it can be a cause for alarm. In a lot of cases, if it happens once, it's bound to happen again in the future. If you're in traffic while this happens, simply look to pull over in a safe manner; there is no need to drive dangerously to stop like you've got a boot full of nitroglycerin. However, an alarm warning that your car is running too hot is a serious issue, and it should not be ignored under any circumstances. It might be possible that the gauge is faulty, but this should never be relied on. Perhaps surprisingly, cars are actually most likely to overheat while idling, as there is less air flow.
The safest thing to do is pull over safely and turn your car off. Giving your car a chance for respite is important if you want to mitigate the risk of incurring permanent damage. If you have car insurance (and you really should), many insurance agencies offer free short-range towing to get your car back home or to a mechanic. Speaking of mechanics, it is a good idea to have a reputable mechanic run diagnostics on the engine. Regular car servicing is good, but it is practically mandated in such alarming situations. Cars can overheat for many reasons, and not all reasons will have you cracking open the piggy bank. If you're lucky and the problem is just a faulty gauge, the fix is just a cheap gauge replacement; furthermore, the price might also be relatively low (less than $100) if the car just needs an engine flush.
Perhaps the most important thing to do is not do something in a state of panic; for example, do not under any circumstances take off the radiator cap. Uncapping the radiator (or water system) is a very, very bad idea when the car is hot. Assuming the car is running hot as the gauge indicates, the high amount of pressure will cause the cap to be shot out, potentially burning you. Also, although an engine flush can help, sometimes it is just a matter of topping up the coolant. Forgetting to keep coolant levels up means that your engine is liable to overheating; this is similar to a computer running at full capacity with a disabled or blocked fan.
I've always driven used cars, and when I first started driving, I made some costly decisions and bought a couple of cars that just weren't worth the money I spent on them. I knew I needed to learn how to inspect a car's engine and how to spot warning signs when I was buying a used car, so I started reading everything I could find on the topic, including basic car mechanics and maintenance. I started this blog to share what I've learned over the years, and I hope my tips will prevent other new drivers buying used cars that will drain their wallet and sap the enjoyment out of driving. I hope you find my posts informative and useful.