March 27, 2007

Pumping Your Own Gas

Filed under: Motorcycling, Portland — Tom @ 8:43 pm

If there is one thing that completely drives me crazy about Portland, it’s Oregon’s ban on pumping one’s own gas. For those of you who haven’t been here, it’s one of two states in the Union that prohibit motorists from fueling their own cars. (The other is New Jersey.)

This gas thing is a disaster, both here and in NJ. Gas station owners don’t want to have to provide full service. These gas attendents exist solely by government edict. So the stations only have one or two guys working at a time. You’ll see big gas stations with five or more islands, most of which are blocked off with orange cones since they’ve only got one pump jockey. So you get in line behind the other cars and gaze longingly at all the open (but verboten!) gas pumps. When I lived in Virginia and had to make trips to New Jersey, the lines on the New Jersey Turnpike went on forever.

What’s the point of all this? The idea was that back when these laws were passed, filling your tank was a dangerous exercise that only trained professionals could handle successfully. I mean, look at the havoc that’s occurred in the other 48 states where untrained auto owners pump about 100 billion gallons every year. I myself lost a close, personal (well, fictional) friend to a bizarre squeegee accident in ’71.

Today? Who knows. Certainly there’s the argument that removing the ban would throw thousands of gas pump attendants out of work. (Cars, buggy whips, blah blah.) Some also seem to think that motorists in their state are just too stupid. From a USA Today article last year:

Bill Dressler, executive director of the New Jersey Gasoline Retailers Association and Allied Trades, says there are safety concerns. While attendants are trained, many motorists would be novices. “It could be put in the wrong container,” says Dressler, whose group represents about 2,200 of the state’s 3,800 gas stations. There could be “somebody getting out and smoking and they didn’t turn the engine off.”

Um, is Bill really concerned that people are going to put gas into the wrong hole? Or is he talking about somebody trying to fill up a milk carton or something? I’m not sure. The part that gets me really riled up, though, is the talk of “trained” attendants.

In New Jersey, the attendant would routinely ask if I wanted him to “top it off” — which you probably know you aren’t supposed to do. Even after I said no, there were a couple times when my refueling professional would fill the tank until the gas ran out onto the ground. I’ve never seen anyone top off their tank, anywhere, except for the highly trained New Jersey guys.

Environmentally conscious Oregon is no better. In June, 2001, Oregon granted motorcyclists the right to pump their own gas — but the pump still had to be operated by the gas attendant, handed off to the motorcyclist, and handed back to the attendant. Every time I ride up to a gas pump, while I’m taking off my gear, the pump attendant helpfully comes over and drains the all the fuel from gas hose onto the ground!. I rarely get a chance to stop them. Again, just like topping it off in New Jersey, I’ve never come across anyone who does this except for the guys that Oregon requires to handle the pumps. Every motorcyclist I know is more than capable of filling the tank without spilling gas on it.

If the biggest environmental hazard coming out of pumping gas is the ban on self service, maybe it’s time to drop it. But it’s a surpisingly volatile topic — I’m constantly surprised at how locals who have lived here their whole lives hate the idea of self-service gas stations.

And, of course, there’s always the logic of out-of-touch New Jersey politicians. From the USA Today link:

Assemblyman Francis Bodine…. says, “If I’m in a tux going to a black tie (event), I don’t want to stop and handle a gas pump.”

Yeah, Francis. I hate when that happens. My limo driver always ends up smelling like gasoline.


  1. Tom, I concur with all the points you’ve made in support of pump-your-own, but there are actually a couple of reasonable arguments on the other side that should be considered. I’ve heard them all, as I’m “lucky” enough to live in the Other State that demands you can’t pump your own and people have been arguing about it since the dark days even before Portlanded existed (hard to remember there ever was such a time…).

    First, Bodine’s bonehead tux comment aside, it is nice in some circumstances to know you don’t have to get out of the car for gas. I regularly visit a station that has great prices, mostly because it’s located on a hill off a highway that gets hit with the worst of all weather. No wind breaks, little cover. The attendants aren’t as clueless as most and so I’m happy to let them stand in the rain and snow rather do it in my suit and tie.

    Expanding on this, some folks aren’t as capable as you or me physically and it’s a real issue for them to get their own gas. I have a family member who, due to age, size, strength, and arthritis, has a true struggle when she has to get her own gas. There have been times when she is traveling in the other 48 states when the guy in the glass booth refuses to come out and help her and she’s actually had to wait to ask another motorist to help with the job.

    This is sometimes alleviated in the states that in my opinion do it right: you have the Option. There are full service and self service and do what you like. I’ve heard that some consider this unfair because stations that offer this almost always charge more for full-service, but I’ve never understood that argument. You get more service, you pay more. I’m a fan of making this scheme the law, and would welcome it if NJ would go that direction. It would have to be a law, though, because if it’s left to the stations most would opt to make it self-serve only, which I just think is unfair in some specific cases.

    Not all attendants are morons as you’ve described. The other station I frequent is the garage I have work on my car. They know me, I know them, they never spill gas on the side and they have a free air pump.

    As with most issues, I believe the two extreme ends of opinion are wrong. Let me choose.

    Comment by Jac — March 28, 2007 @ 9:14 am

  2. “It would have to be a law, though, because if it’s left to the stations most would opt to make it self-serve only, which I just think is unfair in some specific cases.”

    I can’t agree that pumping gas is such a critical function to society that we should abandon free market concepts here. I think our government has plenty on its hands without legislating whether or not you have to get out of your car at the old fillin’ station.

    I agree with you that the extremes of most issues are wrong, but argue that I’m not talking about an extreme here. I’m suggesting that banning self-service doesn’t satisfy any legitimate need and that our government probably doesn’t need to dictate the breakdown of islands at the gas station.

    (We can debate another day whether someone so infirm as to be unable to fill their car should be driving in the first place.)

    Comment by Tom — March 28, 2007 @ 11:38 am

  3. “I’m suggesting that banning self-service doesn’t satisfy any legitimate need…”

    Agreed. It’s silly to make exclusive full-service mandatory. My home state and your adopted one is backward and strange in this regard. But the free-market concepts will tend to exclude accommodations for “minority-drivers”, those who can drive, but would have issues pumping their own gas. Hell, they have hands-only controlled cars for partially paralyzed folks. I think it’s a shame that they and other handicapped people would be further limited by the market-driven rarity of full service available stations.

    Another example: I have a friend with MS who owns a modified van with the robotic wheelchair crane and all that. She’s living a pretty independent life, for all her troubles. It’s a mighty lame situation for her to pull in somewhere for a fill-up and be faced with having to handle it herself. So make it available (but not compulsory) everywhere but change more for it. Wins all around.

    Comment by Jac — March 28, 2007 @ 1:55 pm

  4. Why are you so funny? I miss you Portland man!!! SK

    Comment by Sarah Kathryn — April 12, 2007 @ 7:28 am

  5. The Oregon Gas Station Attendant Full Employment Act

    We’ve been on vacation this week. As is often our custom, we travel by car from California to Washington to visit family for vacations and holidays. Every time we fill up at a gas station in Oregon, we are prohibitted

    Trackback by American Phoenix — July 29, 2007 @ 10:00 pm

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