The Dangers of Running on Empty

Since, these days, gasoline costs as much as fine wine, many drivers are trying to stretch each tankful to the limit. But this tactic can have very negative consequences that extend beyond being stranded by the side of the road, which is negative enough. AAA, which rescues more out-of-gas motorists than anyone, cautions that allowing your car to run out of fuel could not only put you in a potentially dangerous situation, but also result in costly repair bills.

“We realize some motorists are trying to be resourceful and delay fuel expenditures by driving their car until the gas tank is nearly empty, but this can sometimes do more harm than good,” says John Nielsen, AAA national director of auto repair, buying services and consumer information.

A key problem of getting extremely low on fuel is the gunk at the very bottom of your fuel tank. The sediment in the nether regions of the tank can clog the fuel-pump pickup, the fuel filter or the fuel injectors. You might even hit the trifecta and foul all three. In addition, as strange as it may sound, gasoline is sometimes used as a coolant for the electric fuel pump, so when a minimum level of fuel is not maintained, it could cause the pump inside the tank to overheat. The cost to replace that one component alone can cost $500 or more in parts and labor.

Then there’s the value of your personal safety, which many gauge as being priceless. Running out of gas can put you and your passengers in a precarious position if your car or truck suddenly becomes immobilized on the roadway. Power steering and power brakes cease to function in their normal manner when the engine dies, so maneuvering an out-of-gas vehicle is cumbersome at best, dangerous at worst. You can end up stranded in the middle of a busy highway -- without the ability to move your vehicle -- and find yourself at the mercy of oncoming traffic. Fortunately, out-of-gas situations are completely avoidable just by keeping an eye on the fuel gauge, says Nielsen. When you’re running low, pull into a gas station, mobilize your charge card and put some gasoline into that tank. AAA recommends that drivers always maintain at least a quarter tank of fuel.

Rather than stretching your fuel supply beyond the prudent limit, you might want to make a few simple changes in your driving habits that can greatly improve fuel economy. For instance, instead of making quick starts and sudden stops, go easy on the gas and brake pedals. Smooth driving is more fuel-efficient, and it is more pleasant for your passengers. If there is a red light ahead, ease off the gas and coast up to it rather than waiting until the last second to brake. Once the light turns green, accelerate gently rather than making a drag-strip-style start. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that aggressive driving can reduce a car’s fuel economy up to 33 percent, so you have to wonder how important it is to beat that other car across the intersection.

When you’re underway, speed is also a key factor in fuel use. The fuel efficiency of most vehicles decreases rapidly at speeds above 60 mph. Every additional 5-mile-per-hour increment above 60 mph is like paying an additional 24 cents per gallon for gas, says Nielsen. So even in this era of through-the-roof gasoline prices, you can keep some gas in your tank, and that will continue to pay dividends.

by Luigi Fraschini