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Help! It's nighttime and I've run out of gas

Based out of Dallas, Texas, Mary McCoy is a writer and social worker for disenfranchised women and children. She's a single mom, lover of Texas barbecue, and a die-hard fan of yoga

Don't be left in the dark when you run out of gas

We all know the scary lurch of a car running out of gas, but it's way worse at night — particularly if your kids are with you.

Volleyball practice is over, and you've loaded the kids into the car. Your to-do list is churning through your brain as you drive home, and that's when you notice that the fuel gauge is hovering on empty. Surely I can make it home, you think. I'll just fill up tomorrow morning. Famous last words, right? When the car runs out of gas at night — particularly with kids in tow — it's usually time for a full-out mom panic attack.

Staying level-headed in a car emergency

OK, we're not going to lie. Running out of gas at night is a pretty bad scenario, and it's easy to feel overwhelmed. That said, it's super important to maintain your composure so you can make savvy split-second decisions for the safety of your kids.

  1. Keep calm and guide slowly. If you feel your car lurching and sputtering, try to remain calm as you slowly guide your vehicle to the side of the road and out of harm's way. If you're on a highway, guide it down an exit ramp and away from freeway traffic (as long as you're certain it will make it off the exit before running out of gas).
  2. Make your car visible. Your main risk is that another vehicle won't see you and will hit your parked car, so make it as visible as possible. Turn on your hazard lights. If you have them, place reflective triangles or flares by your tires to increase visibility, or tie a white shirt around your car's antenna.
  3. Stay in the car with the doors locked. Don't open the door for help unless you feel absolutely comfortable with the person who is offering help. Instead, use your cell phone to call for help from your locked car. If no one is answering, call the police for help. Many police departments have emergency roadside help available.
  4. Wait in a retail store, if one is nearby. Use extreme caution if you choose to exit your vehicle to wait for help. Quickly guide yourself and your kids away from any traffic. Even the shoulder isn't a great place to hang out for long.
  5. Remember that safety is different at night. Even if you have a gas can, it's not a great idea to use it at night. Visibility is poor, and your main risk is that you'll be hit by a car if you try to fill your vehicle on the side of the road. Your best bet is to wait for assistance.

Preventing a crisis in the first place

Of course, running out of gas is usually a preventable emergency. Remember that no matter how much time you save by bolting home, you'll pay for it 10 times over if you run out of fuel on the side of the road. Let's say, though, that you want to fuel up, but a gas station is nowhere in sight. The Consumer Energy Center suggests you conserve your final few drops of fuel with the following techniques.

  1. Drive at a reduced speed. You'll blow through fuel if you go above 55 miles per hour, so reduce your speed.
  2. Kick your aggressive habits. Don't fly up to a stoplight and slam on your brakes. Choose slow starting and slow stopping, instead.
  3. Turn off the AC. The air conditioner significantly increases fuel usage, so turn it off when your tank gets low.
  4. Close the windows. Anything that increases wind resistance — like open windows — will lower fuel economy.
  5. Don't idle. You certainly won't make it home if you're idling on low fuel. Avoid stoplights and traffic when you can. Your best bet is to go a route that will allow you to maintain 40 to 55 mph the whole way.
No matter what happens, try not to panic. Your kids will pick up on your nervous energy. If you're completely terrified of your environment and the people who stop to help you, don't hesitate to call 911.

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