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Can I call my breakdown provider if I run out of fuel?

Running dry is more common than you might expect, particularly with surging fuel prices - we discuss whether your breakdown provider will cover this

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Well, you thought you could squeeze a few more miles out of your car to get home or to the next petrol station, and it hasn’t gone to plan. Perhaps you weren’t keeping an eye on the fuel gauge, or your car has conked out earlier than you anticipated. Either way, you’ve run out of fuel at the side of the road.

This scenario is more common than you might expect, particularly in recent months with the surging prices of fuel that have caused lengthy queues and dry pumps to become a common sight at petrol stations across the UK.

So, am I covered by my breakdown provider?

In short, it really depends on your breakdown policy. According to research from financial information company Defaqto, 89% of breakdown policies in the UK do provide cover for motorists who run out of fuel. This does mean that one in ten drivers are not covered by their policies when they run dry on the road however.

If your breakdown policy provider is the AA, RAC or Green Flag – good news! All three providers state online that they regularly assist their policyholders who have run out of fuel, though you should note that Green Flag will expect you to pay for the cost of the additional fuel, and your policy may be the same.

Contacts for breakdown assistance:

AA: 0800 88 77 66 (coverage includes running out of fuel, additional fuel is free)

RAC: 03301 598 751 (coverage includes running out of fuel, does not note whether additional fuel is free)

Green Flag: 0800 400600 (coverage includes running out of fuel, expects policy holder to pay for additional fuel)

Start Rescue: 0333 320 0975 (coverage includes running out of fuel, will tow you to the nearest petrol station)

Rescue My Car: 01423 535 795 (coverage includes running out of fuel, only free if a petrol station is with ten miles)

GEM Motoring Rescue: 01342 825 676 (coverage includes running out of fuel, does not note whether additional fuel is free)

Contact details as of July 2022

If you are reading this article at home, it’s a good idea to skim through your car documents looking for what your breakdown policy actually covers overall. If you are stuck at the side of the road with a dry tank, call your policy provider anyway – they will tell you whether you are covered.

If you are not actually covered for scenarios like this, or you don’t even have a breakdown policy, you can still get urgent assistance but for an upfront fee. They will expect you to pay over the phone for the callout and the additional fuel, which could end up being rather expensive.

The AA has recently recorded that the number of its members running out of fuel has surged in line with rising fuel prices, and although it will assist all of these members on request and top up their tanks for free, the company recommends pre-emptive measures above all.

Carefully plan your route and find the nearest petrol station as soon as your fuel light comes on.

Fuel rescue – other questions to consider

My fuel light has just turned on – how far can I go?

The fuel light turning on usually indicates that your fuel tank is only 10-15% full – how far your car can go once the light is on depends on the car. A survey published by TankOnEmpty.com in 2019 suggests that a Ford Fiesta can travel 37 miles on average when its fuel light is on, while a BMW 3 Series can travel 44 miles.

In actuality, how far you can go also depends on factors like the condition of the road, how accurate your car’s computer is at calculating fuel levels, what gear you are usually in and tyre pressure. So, if you are trying to do the maths in your head and planning on playing petrol station roulette, the odds are probably stacked against you.

I’m on empty and the engine is starting to splutter and bang, what is happening?

The engine is now misfiring, and this means that some of the engine cylinders aren’t getting enough petrol to burn. This won’t continue for too long – if the engine has started misfiring you don’t have long before the car conks out all together. Find the safest place to park on the side of the road at short notice.

Is it illegal to run out of fuel?

Not really – you’re not breaking any UK law by running out of fuel. That said, running out of fuel and obstructing the road for other drivers is indeed illegal, and you may receive a £100 fine and three points on your licence. If you are on the motorway, the law cites running out of fuel as one of the reasons you’re allowed to use the hard shoulder.

Is running out of fuel bad for my car?

If this is your first time running out of fuel in a relatively new car, you likely have nothing to worry about. If this is your four, fifth or sixth time running dry in an older car, you should be a bit more concerned.

Older cars can have debris that’s accumulated over the years at the bottom of the fuel tank. There are filters designed to prevent this debris from making it into the engine. But running out of fuel has the potential to clog these filters and other components, which can eventually impede the flow of fuel. Repeatedly running dry could also cause your fuel pump to overheat, wearing it out prematurely.

That said, the health of your car should not be your first priority – look after yourself! Being stationary on the roadside can be quite dangerous, particularly if you are parked up on the hard shoulder of a busy motorway. Remember to exit your car from the door furthest from traffic, walk away from the hard shoulder and out of the way of other vehicles.

Running out of fuel has caused a road accident, does my insurance cover this?

While most car insurance policies will cover you if you run out of fuel, they won’t cover you for accidents caused by running out of fuel. If you have caused an accident when running out of fuel or obstructing the road, you could be taken to court, or issued with nine points on your licence and an unlimited fine.

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Sean Rees
Sean Rees
Sean is the Deputy Editor at The Car Expert. A enthusiastic fan of motorsport and all things automotive, he is accredited by the Professional Publishers Association, and is now focused on helping those in car-buying need with independent and impartial advice.