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Running out of fuel is every driver’s nightmare, which is why that particular dashboard warning light is so important. It’s a sharp reminder that you should make visiting a petrol station one of your immediate priorities.
But just how much further can you drive once you hear the dreaded ‘ping!’ and see the glowing icon? Can you carry on serenely, knowing you’ve still got plenty of miles in the tank? Or should you make a beeline for the nearest pump, veering off your planned route if necessary?
There are several factors in play:
- Make and model: your owner’s manual or manufacturer’s website should give you your warning light mileage – it’s worth checking the figure in advance.
- Computer range information: many cars have onboard computers providing drivable range information based on current fuel consumption and available fuel. There are concerns about the reliability of these displays, though, and the fact they often cease to provide an estimated range below, say, 25 miles.
- Age and condition of the vehicle: an older car may be less fuel efficient than it was when new, so you may need to be cautious in your calculations if your car is rich in years. Similarly, it may not perform at its best if it has been a while since it was last serviced.
- Road type and traffic conditions: you’ll get through more fuel if you’re travelling at higher speeds (over 40mph). The same applies if you’re stop-starting in an urban area or traffic jam.
- Weather: fuel consumption tends to be higher in colder weather.
- Driving style: if you have a heavy right foot and tend to push the throttle needle right round the dial, you’re going to empty your tank more quickly.
- Load: if you’re on your own with little in the way of luggage, you’ll have better fuel economy than if you’ve got passengers and a boot full of bags.
Taking all this into consideration, you can use your knowledge of the area or quiz your smartphone to find petrol stations within range.
Remember not to use your hand-held phone while driving though, or even while you’re sitting with the engine running, as the penalty is six points on your licence and a £200 fine. If you haven’t got someone in the car who can search for you, park up safely before you go online.
If you’re on a motorway, use the next service station or leave at the next junction – you’d be unlucky not to be able to get off the motorway one way or another with 20-25 miles, when there should be fuel within reach.
If your tank is less than a quarter full, it’s probably worth topping up before you get on a motorway in the first place. You don’t want to get stuck on the hard shoulder or find yourself struggling to reach a refuge on a smart motorway when all the lanes are running – these are dangerous places.
Once your fuel light comes on, you may only be able to squeeze another 25-30 miles or so from your tank before running out of juice.
Some cars are more generous with their reserves – you might be in the 35-40 mile range with a Ford Fiesta and 39 miles with a Volkswagen Polo, while VW Golf’s and Audi’s have been known to top 40 miles.
But note that these are approximate values drawn from anecdotal evidence – you should not rely on them if you are caught on the hop with your fuel warning light on.
Driving further for a cheaper refill
One additional consideration that might shape your thinking when you’re driving after the fuel warning light has come on is the price per litre of fuel at the nearest garage.
Would you be tempted to work out if you have enough in the tank to drive past the first petrol station you encountered and head for a cheaper one further away?
If you’re wondering when it becomes worthwhile to drive an extra distance to top up with cheaper fuel, our calculator will help.
If you do run out of fuel and you have breakdown cover, your service will tow you to the nearest petrol station – which may not necessarily be in the direction you are travelling.
If you don’t have cover you’ll need to call out a one-off rescue service which could cost you over £100 if you’re on a normal road, and at least double that if you’re on a dual carriageway or motorway.
Running out of fuel can damage your engine, as driving with low fuel reserves can stir up impurities and residues from the bottom of your tank so they end up blocking your filters.
Lack of fuel may also damage your fuel pump, and with some models, the starting system won’t work if the car has stopped because of a lack of fuel.
So overall, it’s always best to make sure you:
- keep your fuel tank at least a quarter full at all times
- head to the nearest petrol station if your warning light comes on.