No, it isn’t actually illegal to run out of fuel on a motorway. However, the inconvenience, potential cost and likely danger mean we certainly wouldn’t recommend it.
The Motorways Traffic (England and Wales) Regulations 1982 permit stopping on the hard shoulder ‘by reason of a breakdown or mechanical defect or lack of fuel, oil or water, required for the vehicle’.
They go on to say that a vehicle should be ‘allowed to remain at rest on that hard shoulder in such a position only that no part of it or of the load carried thereby shall obstruct or be a cause of danger to vehicles using the carriageway’.
Crucially, stopping on the hard shoulder is permitted only if the emergency arose after entering the motorway. So, does that make it illegal to enter a motorway with insufficient fuel? Solicitor Martin Langan says not, but the situation is far from clear:
“The regulations in relation to fuel state simply that stopping on the hard shoulder is permissible if you run out of fuel. There might, however, be a case for saying that where you knew you did not have enough fuel when you entered the motorway, then you are guilty of either driving without due care and attention or driving without reasonable consideration for other road users.
“Certainly, if running out of fuel caused an accident due to your sudden slowing down or stopping on the motorway, you could not rely on running out of fuel as a defence to a charge of careless driving if you knew or ought to have known that you were low on fuel.”
‘The risks are huge’
This is an important point. It means that, while running out of fuel on a motorway isn’t illegal, there could be implications if it risks the safety of you, your passengers and fellow road users. The fixed penalty for careless driving is £100 with three points on the driver’s licence.
A few years ago, a motorist was fined for running out of fuel and stopping on the M1 motorway. A spokesperson for Derbyshire Police said at the time: “Motorways are obviously high-volume, high-speed roads and the risks posed by coming to an avoidable stop are huge. Luckily there were no injuries, but the potential for a serious collision was clear.”
‘Very little sympathy’
The most serious examples will go to court, where offenders may face higher penalties. A court can issue an unlimited fine and put nine points on your driving licence, although the fine is unlikely to exceed £5,000.
Neil Greig of IAM RoadSmart said: “We have very little sympathy for drivers who run out of fuel on the motorway. There is no excuse for entering a motorway with low fuel or if you know something is wrong with your car.
“A breakdown puts you and your passengers at very high risk – many fatal crashes on a motorway involve a stationary vehicle.”
What if I run out of fuel on a motorway?
Along with the risk of a fine, running out of fuel on the motorway also means you need to either refuel at the roadside or have your vehicle towed.
AA and RAC patrols carry jerry cans with enough fuel to get you to the nearest petrol station. Some patrol vans also have an on-board EV charger in case your electric car’s battery runs flat.
If you aren’t a member of a breakdown organisation, use one of the orange emergency telephones – located at one-mile intervals along the motorway – and call for recovery. But you can expect to pay a hefty fee for the privilege.
Overall, the message is clear: if you plan to drive on the motorway, be sure to fill up first.