Most Americans faced with record gas prices cringe when filling up.
But not the people of New Jersey and Oregon. They are not allowed to touch the gas nozzle. Seriously.
In New Jersey, it has been illegal for drivers to pump their own gasoline since 1949. A ban on self-serve gasoline has been in place in Oregon since 1951, although the state has eased restrictions for rural towns a few years ago. Violators can be fined up to $500 for violating the laws of these states.
So why don’t New Jersey and Oregon allow you to pump your own gasoline? And what happened back when gas station attendants filled your tanks in the rest of the country?
It’s a strange and complex story that goes back more than a century.
The United States has experimented with self-serve gas since the first stations were built in the early 1900s. Yet it was not until around 1980 that self-serve became the main gas station model in this country. .
“Their rise to the top has not been smooth,” write Ronald Johnson and Charles Romeo in a 2000 study of the growth of self-service.
The first self-service gas pumps in the United States appeared around 1915. They were designed primarily for emergencies or for use at night when gas stations were closed. People paid in advance with coins to operate them.
Full-service gas stations are adamantly opposed to self-service. They viewed cheaper self-serve gas as a competitive threat to their business and wanted to limit its spread.
Fuel sales have slim profit margins. Service stations made their money and distinguished their brands by offering a variety of services such as oil and battery checks, windshield wipes, and vehicle repairs. Full-uniformed station attendants – some wearing bow ties – filled customers’ tanks, a key part of their wider service strategy to attract drivers in the first half of the 20th century.
Full-service petrol stations have highlighted the safety risks around self-service, arguing that untrained drivers will overfill their tanks and start a fire. With the support of local firefighters, gas stations lobbied state lawmakers to ban self-serve. In 1968, self-service was banned in 23 states.
It wasn’t until the success of self-service internationally and a major shift in the gas station business model that self-service began to replace attendants in the United States.
“Modern self-service gas stations were pioneered in Sweden,” said Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan. “There, the drivers paid less for self-service than for full service. From there, the concept spread across Europe.
At the same time, vehicle warranties began to stipulate that cars must be serviced at dealerships, a change that eroded the service and repair business of gas stations.
“Traditional full-service gas stations lost their profit center in auto repairs and were forced to change the way they operated,” said Wayne Henderson, the author of the book 100 Years of Gas Stations.
Service stations had to look for new ways to increase their profits. They moved to self-service, which lowered their costs and increased gasoline sales volumes, and they branched out into selling food, tobacco, coffee, snacks, and other markup items. higher.
Self-service “ended up being more popular because it could create high volumes and opportunities for other profits,” said Gary Scales, a doctoral student at Temple University, writing a thesis on the history of gas stations. service.
Gas station operators have begun pushing states to repeal their self-serve bans. In 1992, around 80% of all gas stations in the country were self-service, up from just 8% two decades earlier.
Despite frequent legislative attempts, legal challenges, and opposition from the gas station industry, New Jersey and much of Oregon still do not allow self-service.
Oregon law says it is in the public interest to maintain the ban. According to the law, allowing self-service would increase the risk of fires, create challenges for the elderly and disabled drivers and lead to job losses at gas stations.
In 1982, Oregon voters rejected a ballot measure to overturn the ban, but more recent polls show attitudes in the state are divided. A 2014 poll found that Oregon residents were almost evenly split on the issue, with 44% supporting the move to self-service and 46% favoring keeping the ban.
Oregon relaxed its ban in 2018, allowing self-service for drivers in rural counties with fewer than 40,000 residents.
In New Jersey, banning self-serve, as well as the state’s reputation for low gas prices, is part of its culture. “Jersey girls don’t pump gas,” proclaims a popular bumper sticker.
Trying to overturn the ban was seen as a political loser.
“On self-serve gas, it’s been kind of third rail politics in New Jersey,” Gov. Phil Murphy said in April.
But record gasoline prices and gas stations’ struggles to find workers have led to renewed attempts by New Jersey gas station industry advocates to lift the ban. In May, 75 gas stations across the state lowered their prices in an effort to gain support to allow self-serve gas.
However, the state is unlikely to allow drivers to pump their own gasoline anytime soon. The president of the state senate opposes a bill that would end New Jersey’s ban.
Residents of the state have little interest in self-service. A March poll found that 73% of them say they prefer to have their gas pumped for them.
“There’s apparently one thing all New Jerseyans can agree on these days,” said Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, during the publication of the survey. “And it’s Jersey’s centuries-old tradition to have your gas pumped for you.”