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What to do if you run out of fuel

Sep 20, 2021

Running out of fuel is a stressful situation – and, with thousands of UK drivers falling into the same trap every month, it’s a lot more common than you might think.

All modern cars feature a fairly accurate fuel gauge, plus that warning light that typically tells us when we have roughly 50 miles left in the tank. So there should be no excuse!

In this article we’ll show you how to avoid running out of fuel in the first place – through economic driving and keeping a proper eye on your fuel levels. Then, we’ll tell you what to do if the worst does happen and you find yourself without any fuel.

We hope that, after reading this guide, you never find yourself in that position. However, given how often it happens to UK drivers, we’d definitely recommend taking out some insurance for young drivers complete with breakdown cover.

Fuel-efficient driving

The dreaded empty-tank scenario may be less likely to come about in the first place if you can adjust your driving style to help your car use as little as fuel as possible. Here are some tips for fuel-saving driving:

Ditch any excess weight

The more weight your car is carrying, the harder it has to work to keep moving – and the thirstier it gets. This is especially true if your route involves hills, or plenty of stop-start driving (city driving is particularly guilty here).

No surprise, then, that one top fuel-saving trick is to remove anything from the car that you’re not going to need on that trip. Roof rack, bike, kids’ toys, tools… all these things will be adding weight to your car.

Removing them will save you small, but significant amounts from your fuel bills and keep you going that little bit longer.

Cut down the drag factor

This is really one for the warmer months. Turns out that either of the solutions you can use to cool down your cabin – roll the windows down or put the air conditioning on – can use up extra fuel.

On the one hand, air conditioning requires fuel. On the other, having your windows open means that your car’s more susceptible to drag, and has to work harder to keep moving at speed – which, you’ve guessed it, uses up fuel.

There is a rule of thumb here, though. If you’re travelling at low speeds, opening the window is the better option – as your engine won’t need much fuel to compensate for the smaller drag forces.

At higher speeds, though (we’re talking 30mph and above), drag kicks in more – and here, air con is the better solution.

Two girls in a car driving with their sunglasses on with the sun behind
Inflate your tyres correctly

You’ll save yourself some money simply by ensuring that your tyres are inflated to the pressure indicated on the tyres, in a few other places – your driver’s handbook, the sill of the driver’s door, inside the fuel tank flap – or online.

The science bit: the more of your tyre’s surface area that comes into contact with the road, the more drag will impact on the wheel, and thus the more fuel is required.

When a tyre is under-inflated, a greater part of it will touch the road than when it’s fully inflated. Conclusion: under-inflated tyres equals more fuel expenditure.

It’s worth noting that under-inflated tyres are dangerous as well as expensive: that increased friction with the road can cause them to overheat, leading to increased wear and even blowouts.

One of those situations for which we’d recommend some decent breakdown cover as part of your young driver insurance.

Just add the fuel you need

One way to save on fuel is by not having too much of the stuff on board in the first place. If you just top up the tank with what you’ll need, you’ll find that what’s in there will go slightly further.

The reason here is that, ironically, a full tank of petrol is one of those things that add quite a lot of weight to your vehicle. Most car fuel tanks are somewhere between 40 and 70 litres, but some can take as much as 100 litres. That’s quite a lot of liquid to be dragging around!

High gears, gentle acceleration

The way you drive will also affect your car’s fuel consumption. Basically, you want a smooth, even driving style with as few sudden movements as possible. Accelerate gently, and use the highest gear that’s appropriate for your situation.

Coming up to a red traffic light, ease off the accelerator early and slow down gently. This is much better than hurrying all the way to the stop sign and braking harshly.

This kind of careful, smooth driving will save fuel for you – and will probably make you a safer, more eco-friendly driver, as well. You’ll find plenty more top tips for eco-friendly driving on our blog.

So, those are our top tips for fuel-efficient driving. No matter how fuel-savvy your driving style is, though, there will come a time when the fuel tank gets near to empty.

Depending on how often you use your car, and what types of journeys you use it for, your need to fill up will come around more or less often. So, how to best prepare for these moments, and to ward off the emergency of being on the road with an empty tank?

Nearing empty – what are the danger signs?

It’s a good idea to get into the habit of checking yourfuel gauge – the digital or analogue display that lets you know how much fuel is left in your tank.

On top of this, as fuel gets critically low, your car will give you some kind of range warning. Typically, this warning light will come on when you’ve got around 50 miles left in the tank – a big enough distance to comfortably find the next petrol station.

Be aware, though, that these gauges inevitably aren’t 100% accurate. They’re based on two variables – how much the car estimates is left in the tank, and how many miles per gallon it estimates you will do with the remaining fuel.

Neither of these are pinpoint-accurate (how does the car know how many hills or stop-starts you’ve got waiting for you, for example?), so it’s often not a good idea to put all your trust in the fuel warning light.

Far better to treat that fuel warning light as your last warning – when you see that come on, it’s time to fill up at the next petrol station you see.

One bad effect of failing to refuel on time, and of running on near empty, is that the car will start misfiring – meaning that some of the cylinders in your engine aren’t receiving enough fuel to burn.

You’ll hear this as a kind of sputtering noise. The car may also jerk forwards when you try to accelerate. Worse, your car won’t keep this up for very long before it breaks down completely.

A car parked next to a pump at a fuelling station

Is it really that bad if you run out of fuel?

Well, for one thing, you don’t really want to be spending your time stranded at the side of the road, especially a motorway with fast-moving traffic.

There are also a couple of reasons why running out of fuel is not good for your car’s internal mechanisms. Particularly in older cars,debris can accumulate over at the bottom of the fuel tank over time.

Your car will have filters that stop this stuff finding its way into the engine – but with no fuel swilling through, these filters are more likely to get clogged up with the debris.

This may eventually stop fuel flowing efficiently from your fuel tank to your engine where it’s needed – by clogging the fuel injectors, the small nozzles that spray fuel into the engine.

In addition, the fuel in your tank actually helps to cool and lubricate the fuel pump, which pumps it into the engine.

Running out of fuel just the once shouldn’t damage the pump – but if you run out regularly, you might end up causing lasting damage – and have problems restarting your car.

Is it illegal to run out of fuel?

It’s stressful and potentially dangerous: but no, it’s not illegal – unless you are deemed by police to have risked the safety of yourself, you passengers and other road users.

This could see you with a charge of careless driving. Result: a £100 fine and three points on your licence – and, very likely, an increased premium on your young driver insurance.

You’ve run out of fuel – what now?

First, what actually happens to the car?

You probably imagine that, when the engine runs out of petrol, it stops working then and there, bringing you to a sudden stop: but, though this sometimes happen, it’s not the typical scenario.

More often, you’ll simply find that the engine starts sputtering, getting intermittent power surges, and perhaps even backfiring. You’ll definitely notice a loss of power – and you should take this as your cue to move, as calmly and safely as possible, to the side of the road.

What can make this bit harder is the fact that, as your engine dies, so will the hydraulic power that operates your steering and brakes. Don’t worry – you’ll still be able to steer and stop the car. It’ll just be that bit harder without the power assistance.

A car parked at the side of a road with brown leaves littering the roadside
Get to safety

The one place you really don’t want to be is stranded in the middle of moving traffic. The moment you think you’re entering this danger zone – engine sputtering or backfiring, jerky movements and so on – get into the slow lane so that you can get off the carriageway as fast as possible.

Or, if you’re on an A road, move over to the left and put your hazard lights on. We’ve got some more detailed advice on what steps to take if you break down on the motorway here.

Once you’re safely off the carriageway, you should exit the car via the passenger door – away from the traffic – and you should walk off the road (or, if on a motorway, off the hard shoulder and over the crash barrier), onto the bank or verge for safety.

Be seen

Switch your hazard lights on straight away and, if it’s dark or foggy, leave your side lights on, too. If you have any reflective clothing (jacket armband) put that on. At this point, it’s all about being seen – and in good time.

If you’re on any road other than a motorway, and you have a hazard warning triangle in the car (which is recommended, but not compulsory, in current regulations), you should place it a minimum of 45 metres behind your car so that oncoming traffic can see you in good time and manoeuvre around you.

If you’re on a motorway, though, don’t use a warning triangle – this is partly because the walk along the hard shoulder to put it in place could be dangerous, and partly because the speed of passing cars could blow the triangle onto the carriageway, creating an additional danger.

Call the breakdown services

If you’re a member of a breakdown service (via your young driver insurance, for example), contact them. If not, find a local service.

If you have a petrol car, you’ve also got the option of calling a friend or relative and asking them to bring you some replacement petrol (maximum five litres).

Diesel vehicles, on the other hand, will probably need their engine bled before the system restarts – and this is a job for breakdown services or a fuel specialist.

We wouldn’t recommend walking to find the nearest petrol station. Much better to stay with your vehicle and wait for help to come to you.

Be prepared

You should think about keeping anemergency kit in your car, in case you ever run out of fuel. Your kit should include a hazard warning triangle, high visibility jacket and empty fuel can.

You should also have with you, at all times, a mobile phone, warm spare clothes, food and water.

Young driver insurance for every scenario

Running out of fuel is one of the more challenging experiences you might go through as a young driver. But if you have the right young driver insurance in place, you’ll be able to get back on the road in no time. 

With benefits including breakdown cover and personal accident cover, Smartdriverclub’s young driver insurance will be there when you need it most.

Get a quote for young driver insurance today.