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:
Witty as usual, Ken. I remember when Pennsylvania first “let” us pump our own gas. At that time there were some hold out gas stations with real attendants. Even though it cost more and I was mostly broke, I still went to them. To this day I hate pumping my own gas so score one for NJ on that front! On the other hand, with only two states left in the nation, maybe they’d better give up and join the program.
It could help nimwits learn how to pump gas properly so they aren’t holding up the line. HA!
Perhaps if our gas was more expensive they would change the law to lower the price. But we have pretty cheap gas because we’re close to the refineries and have a low gas tax. The latter also means that while our transportation infrastucture is rotting there is no money to fix it.
I lived in New Jersey right before I moved to Los Angeles and it was in New Jersey that I had my first car. I remember asking people how to pump gas when I first moved out here and feeling really accomplished when I pumped my own gas. The crazy thing is around that same time I saw a special on Oprah about the dangers of the gas pump. Oprah interviewed all these people who had set their cars on fire at the gas pump so that is a real thing. I remember the expert saying that it is super dangerous to go inside the car once you’ve started pumping gas. I forget why, but I think it had to do with the static that you pick up inside the car that can somehow set your car on fire once you go back to the pump. I never sit in my car while pumping gas to this day.
The video with the Jersey girls pumping gas made me smile. Too funny.
Thanks for the tip Erica. When I’m out of state pumping gas I’ll be sure to stay out of the car.
You guys are spoilt! In the UK, we pump our own gas. My husband takes care of this but I am happy to do so when need be.
I do like NJ. Quiet and peaceful – well the area we stayed in anyway. No local shops though. We had to drive everywhere.
Yeah, we tend to spend a lot of time in our cars, which is why issues like gas become important.
Ken, that video was the best – but really I could understand both their confusion and their felling of victory once they were done. If you’ve never pumped gas…..well. I remember the first time I did, I had the attendant stand in the doorway of the booth to tell me exactly what to do – fortunately he was such a nice guy that he didn’t mind.
Strange though that NJ is such a holdout. I wonder how many out of state people drive up to your pumps and look around bewildered cause they can’t figure out how to ‘self-serve’.
Or, they get out of their car, start to pump the gas, and an attendant comes running out shouting at them.
I don’t mind pumping my own gas but it was nice when we didn’t have to. I’ve experienced the Oregon custom but not New Jersey.
Humorous and enlightening, especially the video. 🙂 I can’t remember the last time I saw a gas station attendant – well, at least one not sequestered behind a thick layer of glass or inside a mini mart. Which makes me think that if I ever pulled into a station and a man approached me I’d probably think he was a mugger and hit him with something and quickly drive off! I don’t know when or if I’ll ever make it back to New Jersey but I just made a note in my US roads guide on the NJ page – just in case.
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I know all about the no pumping in NJ. My sister in law lives in NJ. We visit a few times each year. I didn’t know the history. Thanks for sharing.
Another fun post. It’s interesting how current laws are still affected by a lobby group from over 60 years ago. In Manitoba, we have a mix of self-serve and full-serve gas pumps (usually at the same gas station). I used to always use the self-serve because it was a few pennies cheaper. For the last number of years, we’ve belonged to co-op and full up at their gas stations, where they serve. In the middle of winter, it is nice to stay in the car while someone else fills the tank.
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Prefer not to pump my own gas. But in Europe you can’t avoid it, unless there’s someone else in the car that does it or you have a driver:-). Much prefer the Middle East where it’s done for you.
I will admit, years ago I was shocked when I first went into NJ. I drove up to the pump got out, and by the time I got to the pump a guy was there. He had noticed how much salt was on my car and new I was from Upstate NY. To get off the point about gas, come to find out this guy was in the Army and in the same unit, and base I was stationed at, just years earlier.
Does not surprise me someone lobbied to get self service gas pumps removed.
So self-servioce gas would have denied you the opportunity to meet an old colleague.
I think it’s great not to have to pump your own gas, although, since the car is yours, to pump or not to pump should be a choice! I remember the first time I visited Oregon. I was so surprised to find out that I couldn’t (didn’t have to) pump my own gas. When i was little, the service attendant always pumped our gas. To me, it is a missed convenience.
(1) I do a great deal of walking around as a pedestrian, and I don’t believe for a nanosecond that gasoline fumes are any more hazardous than are the exhaust fumes I am regularly exposed to. (I somewhat like the smell of gasoline, actually – I don’t find it “icky” at all.)
(2) Interestingly, the 1949 Retail Gasoline Safety Act originated in the private sector on account of established businesses that sought to use the force of government to fend off a competitor – something to think about the next time you hear someone whine about “government” regulation.
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Oh I do remember. I must have sat there fifteen minutes waiting for someone to come pump my gas. Growing up in Jersey it never occurred to me people pumped their own gas.
Now here is a real trick. My sister, also a former Jersey girl, has traveled and lived in many other states in her lifetime and still has never once pumped her own gas. She contends ladies do not pump their own gas, and has managed to convince others to do this task for her long driving life. How she has managed this is beyond me…but after reading your post I now realize why her husband chose Oregon to retire them too.
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Wow. I’ve never been anywhere where people still pump your gas. Seems a little weird to me since I’ve been pumping it for years myself.