Why Don’t People Run Out Of Gas Anymore?

(Photo: jim crossley)

Blog reader Becky Roser sent an interesting email recently:

My father pointed out something interesting the other day – almost no one runs out of gas anymore. When gas was $0.60 a gallon, he maintains it happened all the time. Now that it’s $4.00, you almost never see it. I have vague memories of my father running out of gas when I was very young, but I’ve never done it. What changed? Are gas gauges different, allowing you some leeway? Or, like the drop in the prevalence of hitchhiking, is it a reflection of changes in our culture–we don’t have the time to run out of gas (even if we pay for a service like roadside assistance), and we don’t trust that some stranger will be helpful if we do?

Maybe it is just an illusion, but I think Becky is right that people don’t run out of gas the way they used to!  My father used to run out of gas from time to time, something I just cannot imagine doing myself. 

What is especially surprising about people running out of gas less now, if it is true, is that the cost of running out of gas has plunged now that we carry cell phones.  If I ran out of gas now I could just call AAA.  When I was a kid, we would have to walk to the nearest gas station.

I don’t know the answer to Becky’s question, but I wonder if a big part of it is that now when you are low on fuel a light comes on.  In the cheap cars my parents drove when I was a kid, there was no indicator light, just the needle that pointed to empty.  My father considered it an art form to read when the car was really on empty versus when the gauge pointed to empty, but really still had a couple of gallons left.  Not that an indicator light should be much more useful than a fuel gauge pointing to empty, but it might somehow be more salient.

Does anyone have better answers to the question?

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  1. Captain.Obvious says:

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        I don’t see why it’s a problem. (currently) 103 people didn’t like the post. Individually. Nothing mean about that; it’s a pretty tame way of agreeing or disagreeing without having to read 103 replies. Knowing it’s the Internet, likely we’d see 103 insults — people seem ill-equipped to simply disagree with an opinion. *That* would be opprobrium,

        This way seems a fine alternative. Just disagree and move on. No need for hurt feelings about it.

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  3. Mary says:

    Without doing any research, I would estimate that there are also far more gas stations around both for city driving and also road trips. So that when we are in the final gallon, we are more likely to be able to make it to a station in time.

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    • Scott from Ohio says:

      According to the Census Bureau, in 1997 there were about 127k gas stations in the US; that dropped to 121k by 2002, and 114k by 2008.

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      • Ed says:

        Thanks but I think ~ 1950 is more of what they’re talking about.

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      • Scott from Ohio says:

        The Census apparently changed their categorizations in 1997, and previous years aren’t comparable, they say, or I would’ve gone further back. Still, with a ~10% decrease in stations with increasing population, we should see at least some people running out of gas more than they were two decades ago, even if it’s still less than previous generations.

        So what about it? Anyone out there who always had gas in the 80s or 90s but has been letting it run dry more often in recent years?

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      • Phil says:

        What the Census doesn’t tell you is where those stations are located

        Placing a new station station on the map isn’t an art form – it’s a SCIENCE

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    • Dwight K Schrute says:

      maybe because gas stations now have food and beverages for sale also? not just feeding your car, you are feeding yourself? just a thought

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    • Anita says:

      When I was young — let’s say the early 60s, there were at least 5 little family owned gas stations that my 7 year old mind can remember in the rural township where I lived — now there is 1. I don’t think there are more gas stations but I do think auto technology has made “knowing” when you are going to run out of gas more of a known. After the low gas light comes on in my car, I have at least 1-1/2 gallons of gas left in the tank. And unless I am traveling, I am rarely more than 10 miles away for some kind of gas station.

      But I think a bigger thing than that is I don’t need to have the cash on hand to pay for my gas — I can put it on plastic or use a debit card. I remember family members having to scrape together gas money to buy a couple of gallons of gas when it was only 29.9 cents.

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  4. Pepbee says:

    I’d say it’s a combination of both more gas stations (at least here in Europe) and the fact that the light is usually accompanied by an annoying beep, making it impossible to miss.

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    • AaronS says:

      My belief exactly. We have a lot more stations…we have indicator lights. Also, maybe men’s wives are speaking up more now than in times past (SMILE). I know my wife gets positively antsy if the light comes on.

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  5. rationalrevolution says:

    1st generation car owners vs. 3rd, 4th, 5th generation car owners…

    As stated, reduced reliance on, or trust of, others…

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  6. Mike B says:

    Cars today are much more efficient so there is much more warning time between “low” and “none”. Previously when cars got 8-12 miles a gallon it was entirely plausible to run out of gas between exits (or towns) due to the single mistake of neglecting to get off at that last exit or stop at that last station. Today I have a good 20 or so miles between when the light comes on and when I might actually run out of gas. I probably have more, but that’s into the realm of stalling on hills or corners. Today you almost have to be willfully ignorant of your gas situation today to get into a situation where your range is insufficient to reach the next station.

    For the record I thought I ran out of gas once in my old 69 Mustang when trying to run the tank as low as possible due to it being full of “old” gas, but it turned out to be a timing belt problem.

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    • Grant Sutton says:

      Partially I think it might be degree that we are used to having cars in our life, as well as an increase in the general range of the cars. Off a full tank of gas a lot of cars can go 600+ miles, where a car getting 15-20 miles per 20 gallon tank has a 400 mile range. This means if you usually drive your car around with a quarter tank you have 50 extra miles to find the gas pump when you allow your car to go to empty.

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  7. Joe R says:

    The explosion of plastic, debit and credit cards. Everyone has access to all their money at all times and most to a credit line, so we are not at the mercy of how much cash we have in our pocket. As a result we fill up more and no longer have to ration our physical money on trips.

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    • benjamin says:

      This makes sense to me.

      I am 25 now and have access to my money through credit and debit cards. I can remember running out of gas prior to being 18 when I did not have a plastic card. My parents would not allow me to have a debit card fearing I would spend the little money I got from part time jobs too quickly and overdraw.

      This may have been a result of being young and less responsible, but I remember buying gas 2 or 3 gallons at a time because that was all the cash I had on me. I even remember a time I paid for close to $10.00 in gas in all change. That guy was not happy with me, but it was when you could pump before you paid and that was all I had.

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    • Jim says:

      This makes sense to me. I can remember my father passing by gas stations that were not the right company, because he had one gas station credit card, so he would have to go to that brand (Exxo, Standard, whatever it was) or use cash.

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  8. Brian says:

    horror movies?

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    • TheInfamousGdub says:

      Amazing how that’s a cause for everything! 😉

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      • Meagan says:

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    • RPM says:

      Yes, but more likely it’s 24 hour cable news putting the fear of crime in us. Even though crime hasn’t actually increased.

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