Here’s How Many Miles You Can Drive After the Gas Light Comes On

Driving with the gas light on can be dangerous—for you and your vehicle. Here's how many miles you can actually drive on empty.

We’ve all driven a bit too long after the gas light comes on, overestimating our gas mileage and pushing our tank to the limit. Whether you were trying to beat rush hour or save money on gas by waiting to fill up, it can be a panic-filled moment looking for the nearest gas station. But just how many miles can you safely drive after the gas light comes on? The exact number will depend on several factors, including the make and model of your car, your driving habits, regular gas mileage and whether you drive a fuel-efficient car, says Kyle MacDonald, vice president of marketing at Force by Mojio, a GPS fleet tracking app for small businesses. You’re not going to get as far, for instance, in a sports car driven aggressively than you will in a compact car driven carefully.

But here’s the good news: You have more wiggle room than you think. While knowing how to find cheap gas, utilizing the best gas apps and best gas credit cards, and understanding how to get better gas mileage can help you avoid running on empty, you can still learn a thing or two about driving with your gas light on and preventing any damage to your engine. Here’s how many miles you should be driving with the gas light on.

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How far can you drive after the gas light comes on?

There’s not a standard number of miles you can drive when the gas light comes on, says automotive electrician and road safety expert Robert Muñoz. “Typically, it will light up when the tank is below 10% to 15% of its capacity.” In general, after the gas light comes on, Muñoz says it’s safe to drive about 20 to 30 miles in a smaller vehicle or up to 50 miles in a larger vehicle.

Does a car’s make or model affect how many miles you can drive after the gas light comes on?

Yes, the type of car you have makes a big difference. A car with a 10-gallon gas tank might have one gallon remaining when the light comes on. A Ram 1500 truck, however, will have around three to four gallons of gas left. Consider each car’s mpg: If a small city car with a 10-gallon gas tank gets about 40 mpg, it could probably make it 40 miles to the next gas station. Meanwhile, a Ram 1500, which gets around 30 mpg on the highway, could make it as far as 100 miles after the gas light comes on. Typically, when the gas light goes on, about two to four gallons are left in the tank.

Does vehicle age, condition and road condition impact how far you can drive after the gas light comes on?

The short answer is yes, according to Muñoz. A car’s age and condition will have an impact, as will road conditions. For example, winter driving mistakes could put you in danger. Cold weather significantly reduces a vehicle’s fuel economy, and if your gas light comes on when it is extremely cold, you should get to a gas station quickly.

A poorly maintained vehicle that hasn’t received regular oil changes or scheduled maintenance will get a lower mpg, and therefore, it will run out of gas sooner when on empty. On the other hand, if a vehicle has been well maintained, its age shouldn’t impact fuel economy, so you should be able to stick with the general estimates.

What happens when the gas light comes on?

Your car is running low on fuel, and soon, its engine will die, says Margarette Stine, an automotive expert for 4 Wheel Online. While this may sound scary, driving a few miles to the nearest gas station is not likely to damage your car. However, the fuel pump needs gasoline to lubricate the engine. “If there’s no gasoline,” Stine explains, “the engine will overheat and eventually seize up.” Wondering if you’re damaging your car in other ways? These are the top car mistakes mechanics would never make.

Is it bad to drive with the gas light on?

“Driving too long and too often with a tank that is almost empty will stress your fuel pump more than usual wear and tear,” says MacDonald. “And once the fuel pump goes, a car is useless until it’s replaced.”

Over time, you risk a clogged fuel filter as your car begins pulling dirt and debris through its engine. You also risk a damaged fuel pump and even engine misfires, warns Muñoz. In an emergency, it is OK to drive a few miles with the gas light on, every once in a while, but generally, Muñoz believes the risk to your vehicle (and yourself if an accident were to occur) simply isn’t worth it.

Can driving with the gas light on damage your car?

Fuel tanks aren’t perfectly clean environments, says Muñoz, and driving after the gas light comes on can move the debris through your engine. Why is this a problem? It can clog up your vehicle’s components, damage your air filter and harm your fuel pump. Additionally, he says, when your engine isn’t provided the fuel it needs to run properly, “you can expect it to start misfiring when the tank is really low. A bad misfire can damage your engine or even cause an accident while you’re driving.”

What should you do if the gas light comes on?

Stine says there are a few things you can do to minimize potential damage. First, as you look for a gas station, avoid driving at high speeds to prevent the engine from overheating. Second, turn off any unnecessary electronics in your car, including the radio, air conditioning and heated or cooled seats. These kinds of electronics don’t use gas, but they can put a strain on your vehicle’s battery, which will shorten the amount of time you have before the engine dies.

If you find yourself with the gas light on and no gas stations nearby, pull over safely and call for help—you can’t know for sure how many miles you have before the car dies. “You may be able to make it to the next town or gas station,” Stine says (especially if you’re driving the top road trip car or using recommended road trip apps). “However, it’s always best to err on the side of caution, because driving with the gas light on is not advisable and can cause damage to your car.”

How can you stay safe on the road?

If you follow road safety tips, you should be able to drive without damaging your car or putting your own safety at risk after the gas light comes on. However, if driving on empty is common for you, consider investing in a roadside assistance plan, such as AAA, to help in the event of an emergency or if you run out of gas. Of course, the best course of action is to always have enough gas in your tank in the first place. Heading on a long road trip? Start with a full tank of gas and calculate your gas costs. And if you want to stay extra safe on the road, these are the car gadgets that make driving safer.

Does driving with the gas light on save money?

Filling up your gas tank less frequently does not mean you’re saving money, says Muñoz. In fact, the damage being done to your vehicle may end up costing you money. If you’re looking to save a buck, learn how Costco keeps its gas prices so low (and how its gas pumps know when your tank is full). And to keep your money safe at gas stations, be aware of the gas pump skimmer, a scam that could steal your credit card information.

Is it bad to drive on a low battery in an EV?

Running an EV battery flat can not only damage it, says Muñoz, but also prevent it from fully recharging in the future. Even in the most eco-friendly cars, a general rule is to prevent the battery from dipping below 20%. When money is tight and gas prices (or EV charging costs) are high, don’t push your vehicle’s fuel tank to the limit.

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Jeff Bogle
Jeff Bogle is an Iris Award-winning photographer, avid traveler, and English football fanatic who regularly covers travel, culture, cars, health, business, the environment, and more for Reader's Digest. Jeff has also written for Parents Magazine, Esquire, PBS, and Good Housekeeping, among other publications. He is the proud dad of teen daughters. You can follow his adventures on Instagram and Twitter @OWTK.