The Dangers of Driving with Low Oil Level

Just as you can’t do without food and water, your car’s engine can’t do without oil. Any time that your engine runs low on oil is always a cause for concern. Without the right amount of oil, your engine won’t have long before it breaks down.

What Oil Does for Your Engine

Think of oil as the lifeblood of your engine. Its primary job is to provide lubrication for the numerous moving parts inside of your engine. As oil flows over each part, it forms a thin protective layer over that part. This thin film prevents metal-on-metal contact that would quickly create friction and excess heat.

Speaking of heat, oil’s secondary function is absorbing and dissipating heat. As oil flows through the engine, it also collects excess heat and distributes most of it throughout the engine and the rest through an oil cooler, if your vehicle comes equipped with one.

Engine oil also sweeps debris out of the various parts and passageways. This debris is eventually trapped as the oil flows through the oil filter, thereby keeping the engine oil relatively clean throughout its service life.

Things That Could Possibly Happen

Several things can happen when your engine runs low on oil, none of them good.

Excessive Wear

At the start, your oil pump won’t pick up enough oil to distribute throughout the engine. That means your engine’s moving parts won’t get enough lubricant to prevent metal-on-metal contact. Without that protective layer, the resulting friction not only generates more heat, but also creates more wear and tear on those moving parts.

Parts that wear down prematurely will also fail sooner than expected. This can lead to sudden, unexpected breakdowns and a steep repair bill depending on which components were severely worn down.


Without the right amount of oil, your engine becomes more vulnerable to overheating. Since there’s not enough oil circulating through the engine, there’s no way for the engine to shed that excess heat. This can lead to heat soak, where certain engine components overheat and eventually deform due to the stress.

A number of things can happen when engine components warp due to overheating. For instance, your engine could blow its head gasket if the cylinder heads warp and lose their millimeter-perfect contact with the engine block. Other parts can lose alignment and knock against each other, leading to additional friction, wear, and heat buildup.

Even if you have the proper amount of engine coolant, low oil levels can still cause overheating issues that eventually damage your engine if not fixed soon enough.

Catastrophic Engine Failure

Drive around with a low oil level long enough and this is bound to happen. Eventually, your engine’s moving parts will overheat to the point at which its moving parts start expanding to the point at which the engine locks up solid. But that’s just one way your engine could potentially fail due to low oil levels.

The extreme wear and tear caused by a lack of proper lubrication can also cause individual components, including pistons, rod bearings, and camshafts, to fail catastrophically. Picture an engine block with a gaping hole through it or a piston in several pieces.

A common sign of impending engine failure due to low oil levels is increased engine knocking or thumping. These noises are often the death knell of an engine, as there’s already a significant amount of damage done to the engine at this point.

What to Do If Your Oil Warning Light Appears

If an oil warning light pops up on your dashboard, pay close attention to it. That means you’ll need to pull over in a safe spot and shut off your engine before further damage occurs. At this point, you’ll want to do the following:

  • Look underneath the front of your vehicle for any signs of oil leaks. If possible, visually inspect the oil pan for any signs of damage.
  • Check your engine oil level. Most vehicles feature a dipstick near the engine for this purpose, but some vehicles lack this feature, requiring you to use your vehicle’s information or infotainment system to check oil levels.
  • If you don’t have enough oil in your vehicle, add the recommended oil for your vehicle to the correct levels for your engine.

If you have the right amount of oil in your vehicle and the oil warning light still shows, have your vehicle towed to our service center at Herrin-Gear Chevrolet. Our technicians have the equipment and expertise to diagnose any issue involving your vehicle, including those that could trigger an oil warning light.