Don’t Tempt Fate by Driving on an Empty Gas Tank

Have you ever seen that episode of Seinfeld? The one where Jerry wants a Saab and somehow everyone ends up at the dealership. Then, you know, Kramer is suddenly behind the wheel with a car salesman, the car’s gas tank is below empty, and with the dealership in sight? The two decide to pass by the dealership and set off into the distance to share their own Thelma and Louise moment? Well, that episode has always left me wondering. How bad is it to drive on an empty gas tank?

A car's fuel tank on empty
Driving on an empty gas tank | Christian Ohde/McPhoto/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Is it bad to drive with an empty gas tank?

First things first, it’s important to understand how your car’s fuel pump sends gasoline from your car’s tank to its engine. This process is key to keeping your car moving. Without it, you’ll probably find yourself stranded somewhere alongside the highway. Not my idea of a good day.

Mental Floss explains that after you fill up your gas tank, fuel enters the fuel pump through a strainer. It then moves through another round pump before entering the electric pump motor, where it cools its copper windings. If your gas tank is empty, air cools the windings instead. Doing this can cause your fuel pump electric motor to overheat, causing its windings to melt. Unsurprisingly, that can lead to a good amount of damage.

If you own an older car, driving it on an empty gas tank can also dredge up sediment that’s been collecting in the bottom of your car’s fuel tank. Jalopnik reports that when this happens, it can clog your fuel filter. As your fuel rate slows, the car becomes more difficult to run. This can also result in the electric pump motor overheating. 

RELATED: The Right Way to Check Your Car’s Tire Pressure and Keep Your Tires Properly Inflated

How long can you drive after your gas light turns on?

Fortunately, cars these days come equipped with a handy low fuel level warning light that will help you prevent driving on an empty gas tank. Really, this light is meant for one thing and one thing only. Once your fuel tank gets to a certain level, the low fuel level warning light will turn on. After that? It’s time to find a gas station.

But how long can you drive before your really out of gas? It’s not often that the light goes off and a gas station is right in front of you. Your Mechanic has an insightful chart for that, actually. While I certainly wouldn’t rely on it all the time, it will give you an idea of how long you can drive after your gas light turns on.

RELATED: Are Crossovers Really Safer Than Sedans?

Driving on an empty fuel tank isn’t worth the risk

Driving on an empty fuel tank isn’t just a risk to your car. While doing so could cause some damage, driving on an empty fuel tank also puts your personal safety at risk. Being stranded on the side of the road isn’t just a bad time, it can also be dangerous. So can walking on the side of a busy road in hopes of stumbling on a gas station. To avoid driving on an empty fuel tank? Your Mechanic recommends keeping a quarter tank of gas in your fuel tank at all times. Keep a good eye on that fuel gauge too.