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Free the Gas Pumps!

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Aside from both being coastal states, New Jersey and Oregon have little in common except for one infamous thing. Drivers vacationing or passing through either state for the first time who have to stop to gas up their cars are in for a rude awakening if they try to pump their own gas. They will quickly find out from a gas station attendant that it is illegal to pump your own gas in New Jersey and Oregon.

True, other states used to have the same prohibition. But restrictions on self-service gas pumping were all lifted by the late 1970s. Thus, although it is perfectly legal in “the land of the free” to pump your own gas in any other of the 48 states and Washington, D.C., doing so in New Jersey or Oregon will still result in a fine. The prohibition in Oregon has been partially lifted, but doesn’t take effect until the beginning of 2016.

Prohibitions

The prohibition in New Jersey goes back to the 1949 Retail Gasoline Dispensing Safety Act. According to the New Jersey Statutes,

No person shall dispense fuel at a gasoline station, unless the person is an attendant who has received instructions regarding the dispensing of fuel, had practical experience dispensing fuel under the direct supervision of an experienced operator for a period of not less than one full working day, and, upon examination at the end of that period, demonstrated his understanding of those instructions.

Riders of motorcycles are not exempt. Attendants “shall require a motorcyclist to dismount his or her motorcycle while gasoline is being dispensed into their vehicle.” Violators are “liable for a penalty of not less than $50.00 and not more than $250.00 for a first offense and not more than $500.00 for each subsequent offense.” The New Jersey Statutes justify the prohibition on self-service gas dispensing by appealing to “the public interest,” “the common welfare,” and “safety and convenience.”

The prohibition in Oregon has been in place since 1951. According to the Oregon Revised Statutes (ORS),

An owner, operator or employee of a filling station, service station, garage or other dispensary where Class 1 flammable liquids, except aviation fuels, are dispensed at retail may not permit any person other than the owner, operator or employee to use or manipulate any pump, hose, pipe or other device for dispensing the liquids into the fuel tank of a motor vehicle or other retail container.

Unlike motorcyclists in New Jersey, motorcyclists in Oregon are exempt if they so request:

Upon the request of an operator of a motorcycle, the owner, operator or employee of a filling station, service station, garage or other dispensary where Class 1 flammable liquids are dispensed at retail shall set the fuel dispensing device and hand the discharge nozzle to the operator of the motorcycle.

The state fire marshal may impose on violators “a civil penalty not to exceed $500 for each violation of any provision of ORS 480.315 [policy] to 480.385 [civil penalty for gasoline dispensing law violations] or of any applicable rule adopted by the State Fire Marshal.” The Oregon Statutes likewise justify the prohibition on self-service gas dispensing by appealing to “the public interest,” “the public welfare,” and “safety.”

Bills were introduced in the New Jersey and Oregon legislatures this year to free, or partially free, the gas pumps even as public opinion polls still showed that a majority of residents in both states favored retaining the prohibition on self-service.

A bill was introduced in the New Jersey Senate to allow “voluntary” self-service but require gas stations to retain at least one full-service island. If a station discounted the price of self-service gas, it would still have to provide full service at the discounted rate to drivers with disabilities. But the senate president, Steve Sweeney, has indicated that the legislation will not pass as long as he is in charge. “We’ve been doing it the right way in New Jersey. We should not change,” he said. An editorial in a New Jersey newspaper opines that “there is no compelling reason to eliminate full-service gas stations” and “every reason to maintain the convenience that motorists in the Garden State have come to treasure.”

A bill to partially free the gas pumps in Oregon was introduced in February in the House.

A bill to partially free the gas pumps in Oregon was introduced in February in the House, approved unanimously in April, amended by the senate, approved unanimously again in the House in June, and approved in the senate in June with only five negative votes. It was signed into law by the governor on June 22, but doesn’t take effect until the beginning of 2016. The Oregonian reported that the chief sponsor of the bill, Rep. Cliff Bentz, “said several people drove hours from far-flung burgs around the state to testify in favor of the bill.” They told stories “of drivers being forced to sleep in their cars or being stranded in an emergency because they couldn’t purchase gas.”

The relevant section of Oregon’s HB 3011 reads:

(2) Notwithstanding ORS 480.330 and 480.340, if a filling station, service station, garage or other dispensary where Class 1 flammable liquids are dispensed at retail is located in a low-population county, the owner or operator may, after
6 p.m. and before 6 a.m.:

(a) Permit a person other than the owner, operator or employee to use or manipulate a device for dispensing liquids into the fuel tank of a motor vehicle or other retail container;

(b) Permit the use of an installed coin-operated or self-service dispensing device for the liquids; and

(c) Allow the use of an automatic nozzle to dispense the liquids without the owner, operator or employee being in the immediate vicinity of the tank or container being filled.

A “low-population county” is a county with a population “of not more than 40,000.” This designation applies to more than half of Oregon’s counties. Additionally, “If a county ceases to be a low-population county on or after the effective date of this 2015 Act, dispensaries located within the county may operate as described in subsection (2) of this section notwithstanding the change in county population.”

Arguments

The arguments given by the states of New Jersey and Oregon in their statutes to prohibit the self-serve pumping of gas are both illogical and comical.

Safety is the biggest concern. Attendants are needed because gasoline is a flammable liquid and dispensing it is a fire hazard. Attendants are needed to make sure customers turn off their vehicles and refrain from smoking while refueling. Attendants are needed because cashiers inside a store are unable to maintain a clear view of the customers dispensing fuel. Attendants are needed because gasoline’s toxic fumes make it a health hazard, especially to small children, pregnant women, and those with respiratory diseases. Attendants are needed because there is a risk that crime will take place when a driver leaves his vehicle to pay for his fuel. Attendants are needed because children are at risk when they are left in vehicles while the driver pays for his fuel purchase. Attendants are needed because there is a risk of personal injury to drivers from slipping on wet surfaces when they walk to the cashier to pay for their fuel. The ORS even says that the dangers of crime and slick surfaces “are enhanced because Oregon’s weather is uniquely adverse, causing wet pavement and reduced visibility.”

Another concern relates to the disabled — especially those who rely on a wheelchair, walker, cane, or crutches for mobility — the pregnant, the aged, and the infirm. The usual safety hazards are heightened. And pumping their own gas is a special burden and unreasonable discomfort. Oregon even invokes the Americans with Disabilities Act (Public Law 101-336), which “requires that equal access be provided to persons with disabilities at retail gasoline stations.”

Another argument is that the use of self-service gas stations has diminished the availability of repair and maintenance services at gas stations. And because gas station attendants are not available to make maintenance checks, vehicle maintenance is neglected, which is dangerous to customers and other motorists, and leads to unneeded costly repairs that result from deferring maintenance.

And then there is the matter of employment. The ORS justifies Oregon’s self-service prohibition by saying that “self-service dispensing at retail contributes to unemployment, particularly among young people.” The legislation in both New Jersey and Oregon maintains that the self-serve prohibition provides “increased safety and convenience without causing economic harm to the public in general.” New Jersey adds that “the prohibition of customer self-service does not constitute a restraint of trade in derogation of the general public interest.”

Answers

Not only are there plenty of substances just as dangerous as gasoline that anyone can purchase at his local hardware store, there are plenty of actions that people can undertake that are potentially much more dangerous than filling their car with gas. Consumers in New Jersey and Oregon can buy lye for their drains and weed killer for their lawns and use these hazardous chemicals themselves. Neither stores nor purchasers are required by state law to hire attendants to go to houses to pour lye into drains or apply weed killer to lawns. Residents of New Jersey and Oregon can freely use chainsaws, lawnmowers, and ladders even though thousands of Americans are injured every year while doing so.

All of the arguments about the bad things that could happen to a driver, his children, and his vehicle when he walks away from the gas pumps to pay for his gas seem rather ludicrous, since virtually all self-service gas stations are equipped with “pay at the pump” technology. And as mentioned above, Oregon just ended its prohibition on self-service between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., effective the beginning of 2016. But if it is so hazardous for members of the general public to pump their own gas between the hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. that an attendant must do it for them, then it is certainly just as hazardous between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., when it is dark and cold.

The disabled and senior citizens who have trouble pumping their own gas are not disadvantaged and burdened in states that allow self-service gas. Some stations in those states do still provide full-service pumps. And every self-serve gas station that I have ever been to has a notice posted somewhere that you can honk your horn if you are handicapped and someone will come out of the store and pump your gas for you. But even if there are no store clerks available to provide assistance, all a handicapped individual at a gas station has to do is ask for help from the general public in pumping his gas just like he might ask someone to get something off the top shelf in a grocery store. There are no special clerks employed in grocery stores to get items off the top shelf for disabled and short people. The same principle applies in the case of senior citizens and pregnant women.

Refueling your vehicle and having it checked or fixed are two entirely different things. The fact that fifty years ago one could have them done at the same location has no relevance to whether self-serve gas should be prohibited. Shops that provide automobile repair and maintenance services are found in abundance throughout New Jersey and Oregon. Even if a station has only full-service gas, it doesn’t follow that its attendants will be available to make maintenance checks on vehicles. That is not mandated by the governments of either New Jersey or Oregon. And there is nothing preventing a station that offers only self-service gas from having an auto-repair facility on the property.

If permitting self-service gas pumping contributes to unemployment, then allowing people to cook their own food, mow their own yards, and paint their own houses do likewise. To create more jobs, why don’t the states of New Jersey and Oregon mandate that all of their residents hire cooks, landscapers, and painters? Why stop with gas station attendants? And why not ban ATMs and force banks to hire more tellers? Is it really in the public interest to force businesses to hire and pay the salaries and benefits of employees they don’t need? In a free market without restraint of trade, gas stations in New Jersey and Oregon could hire attendants and reserve one or more gas pumps for full-service — and even charge more for it — if they felt there was a demand for it. But the decision to do so would be up to each individual business. And were it not for minimum-wage laws, teenagers could pump gas for tips at gas stations.

And of course, all of the arguments put forth by the states of New Jersey and Oregon — and any of their residents who are gas station attendants who don’t want to lose their jobs, citizens who don’t want to pump their own gas, or politicians who pander to both groups and argue likewise — are demolished by the fact that self-serve
dispensing of gasoline has been practiced without incident in the other 48 states and the District of Columbia for decades. Are there more fires at gas stations in all of the other states? Are all of the other states in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act? Are cars really maintained less well in all of the other states? Are more children left unattended in cars in all of the other states? Is the weather better in all of the other states? Do more crimes take place at gas stations in all of the other states? Do more people suffer from respiratory ailments in all of the other states? Are more drivers injured at gas stations in all of the other states? The answer to all of those questions should be obvious.

Freedom

The prohibition on self-service gas pumping in New Jersey and Oregon is the ultimate in nanny-state paternalism. Here is what those laws are actually saying to the people and businesses of New Jersey and Oregon:

You people are stupid. You are too stupid to pump your own gas without putting out your cigarette, breathing toxic gas fumes, causing a fire, leaving your children unattended, allowing your car to be vandalized, or slipping and falling when you go to pay for your gas. You are so stupid that you cannot safely do what teenagers do without incident thousands of times a day in the other forty-eight states. But never fear, your state government will keep you safe by forbidding you to pump your own gas and by forcing gas stations to hire attendants to pump your gas for you.

You businesses are stupid. You are too stupid to make sure that when your customers pump their gas at your station they don’t smoke, breathe toxic gas fumes, slip and fall, leave their children unattended, allow their car to be vandalized, and follow common-sense safety procedures so they don’t start a fire and burn their car and your gas station to the ground. You are so stupid that you cannot safely run a gas station like thousands of other businesses do without incident in the other forty-eight states. But never fear, your state government will ensure that you keep your customers safe by forcing you to hire attendants to pump their gas, even though you will be unnecessarily paying employees to perform a service for customers that they may prefer to do for themselves.

The real issue, of course, is freedom. Freedom of gas stations to decide whether they want to have self-service, full service, or a combination of both types of gas pumps. Freedom of businesses to ensure the safety of their customers as they see fit. Freedom of businesses to hire just the employees they think they need. Freedom of consumers to pump their own gas if they choose to do so. Freedom of consumers to take care of their own children. Freedom of consumers to be treated like adults with basic common sense. Freedom from government paternalism. Freedom from a nanny state.

Free the gas pumps!

This article was originally posted in the November 2015 edition of Future of Freedom.

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