If you spent your teen years in New Jersey and began your life as a driver in the state, you have probably had this experience. Driving out-of-state, usually in neighboring Pennsylvania or New York, you stop for gas. You pull up to the pump and wait…and wait…and wait. But you’re not in New Jersey anymore and no one is going to come and pump your gas.
Even though it might be cold and rainy. Even though you might have just had a manicure and your nails are still wet. Even though you might not want the icky smell of gas on your hands. You’ve got to get out of the car, figure out the instructions and pump your own gas.
New Jersey is one of only two U.S. states, the other being Oregon, where gas station attendants pump your gas while you sit in your car, perhaps checking your email and maybe listening to music. Having only spent about four days in Oregon I can’t speak for them but in New Jersey there are a number of explanations as to why we don’t fill ‘er up ourselves.
Officially the ban on self-service gas dates back to the 1949 Retail Gasoline Safety Act. That piece of legislation went into quite a bit of detail about the risks of gas pumping. Here are some highlights of what is officially known as 34:3A-4.
- There are fire hazards associated with dispensing fuel.
- It is difficult to enforce safety regulations without staff at the pumps. (Supposedly the gas station attendants who would fill your tank with a cigarette hanging out of their mouth are qualified to enforce these regulations).
- Self-service stations are subject to higher insurance premiums.
- Exposure to gasoline fumes is a health hazard, particularly to pregnant women. (In 1949 we had no problem with pregnant women smoking and drinking.)
- Because stations in self-service states charged much higher prices for “full service” it was a discriminatory practice that subjected low income individuals to health risks. (Last documented evidence of the state legislature showing serious concern for income inequality.)
This makes pumping your own gas sound like pretty risky behavior. Perhaps some of my readers who happen to live in the 48 states that seem so oblivious to these risks can let me know if there have been instances of self-immolation at gas pumps in your neighborhood or a rash of miscarriages traced to gas pumping.
But according to Paul Munshine of the Star Ledger, there is another typically Jersier reason (The real reason self-service gas was banned in NJ: Corruption). According to Munshine everyone in 1949 was selling gas for about the same price, 21.9 cents a gallon. And then along came an entrepreneur by the name of Irving Reingold who opened a 24-pump self-service station in Hackensack offering the discount price of 18.9 cents per gallon. Angered by this intruder who didn’t adopt to the pricing collusion that everyone else did, the Gasoline Retailers Association lobbied the state legislature, the result of which was the 1949 legislation. Munshine quotes WOR radio commentator Lyle Van reporting “Chalk up another victory for the organized pressure groups.” (This move sent Reingold off looking for a career change. He resurfaced as the owner of The New Bell, a club that featured male go-go dancers for female audiences.)
That legislation is 65 years old.. Presumably the technology of pumping gas has improved enough to be less hazardous than is was in 1949. So why do we still not have self-service pumps? Some say it would take away jobs. Others point to the difficulty it would pose for some of the physically disabled. And apparently no elected official in the state (including the big man who is now running for President) wants to touch the issue after a Fairleigh Dickinson University poll in 2012 found that 62 percent of New Jerseyans (73 percent of female drivers) want to keep things the way they are.
And then there’s one other theory proffered by some cynical out-of-staters who believe that New Jerseyans are perhaps too dumb to pump gas. I can assure you that despite having lived most of my life in New Jersey, I have pumped gas in states all over the country even in such high pressure situations as the last gas station before the rental car return at LAX.
But then there’s this video evidence: