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?


Maybe because gas stations have become more efficient with the increase in technology and communication.

Heavy D

I was told some story about fuel injection and electronic fuel pumps, and how running the system dry damages modern cars more than the mechanical systems of yesteryear. If I knew running out of gas was okay for my car, I'd do it more often. I actually need a little more excitement and spontaneity in my life!


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.


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.


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

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

Mike B

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.

Joe R

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.


horror movies?


Interesting assumption. I would have to lend credit to your idea of the gas light. Another possibility is the quality of our cars. A lot of the newer models have higher a MPG rating. While it looks like you are close to an empty tank, you may have been even closer with an older model car.


Personally, my car calculates how many miles I have to go before I reach empty, so I can get pretty close to empty and still know there is a gas station within range. I have also seen this feature on many cars that I rent.


Cars have large gas tanks and get good gas mileage. A vehicle with a large V8 from the 70s got below 10MPG, so a 16 gallon tank gave a range of 160 miles. Now everyone's least favorite rental car, the Chevy Aveo, gets about 30mpg on a 11 gallon tank. That's a range of 330 miles.

It helps that many gas stations are open 24 hours, thanks to credit card readers.


I still run out of gas a few times a year. But I'm poor. I think the distance between poor and middle class is so much further than it was years ago. You can drive your vehicle made in the 2000s from your cul de sac, suburban neighborhood to your office building or shopping district without passing a trailer park, government housing, industrial park or me, driving the car you sold me in 1994.


In my dodge ram, I could drive around 3o minutes on 'empty' - perhaps more but I never wanted to find out how far I could push it. usually I filled it as soon as it got low though - because once my gas gauges got low, the truck would ding and I found it incredibly annoying. I wonder if the annoying gauges have as much to do with it as anything.


I used to have an SUV as a company car and ran out of gas a few times with it! I also owned a more fuel-efficient car, and never ran out of gas with it. Gas-guzzlers hit "empty" much sooner then fuel-efficient cars--you have more time to fill up when the gas light comes on!

Kim Frazier

More suburbs and developments also translates into more gas stations. I was reminded of that when I came dangerously close to running out of gas on a roadtrip through the rural west last summer.


Credit Cards. You no longer need to make the money from this paycheck last until the next paycheck. People will take on a little extra consumer debt to remove the potential hassle and cost of running out of gas.


I think that the indicator light is a big help. I wonder if there are a lot more gas stations than there used to be, therefore making it much easier to find a station when you're running super low. ?

Bill Keating

With newer fuel injected engines with full time fuel pumps the "price" of running out of gas and cavitating the pump in the gas lines is much higher (fuel pump failure).


Operating hours - when I was a kid, 24 hour gas stations were practically unheard of. Also, an increase in the number of gas stations in rural areas, also 24 hour.


Agree better warning lights in cars, but also cars more efficient so can go longer and further on less. Lower chance of running out. Are there also more gas stations now? So more opportunity to fill up?