Having no choice but to pump my own gas when I was growing up in the southern U.S., I was shocked to learn there are places in this country that to this day forbid freedom-loving Americans from ever filling the tank themselves. Here’s why New Jersey and some parts of Oregon have weirdly strict gas pump rules.
Growing up, I remember being terrified of going to the gas station to fill up the red plastic containers that my dad and I used for the lawn mowers. I remember being told that there were strict rules governing what containers you could use, and it felt borderline illegal to squat on the ground and fill up a bottle with gasoline. Then again, I was fairly notorious for “modifying” rockets and fireworks around this time, so perhaps it was just my self-conscious mindset beating back my inner pyromaniac.
Years later, when I moved to New York City, I learned the hard, awkward way about New Jersey’s peculiar state law against pumping your own gas. I got out of the car and started to do my thing, and I had to be told by some teenager waving a filthy windshield wand to get back in my car. It didn’t take long to figure out that I should expect many things to just be different in New Jersey.
New Jersey passed the Retail Gasoline Dispensing Safety Act and Regulations in 1949, a response to the perceived risk associated with the rapidly growing number of motorists having to handle highly flammable gasoline. On paper, before the downfall of casual smoking and before pumps were fitted with an assortment of safety features, that was, in all fairness, potentially risky. We still see station fires, and they’re terrifying on the rare occasions that they happen.
The Retail Gasoline Dispensing Safety Act mandates that “no person dispense fuel at a gasoline station, unless that person is an attendant who has received fuel dispensing instructions.” If you are caught breaking this law, you could “be liable for a penalty of not less than $50 and not more than $250 for a first offense and not more than $500 for each subsequent offense.” Penalties for the actual pump owner are threatened but not outlined in the legal language, and they seem to be determined case-by-case in a hearing.
While the vast majority of the country’s gas stations have long since shifted to a self-serve model, some glaring downsides to the practice remain. For one, those self-serve stations often have no attendants at all to pump gas, which leaves customers like wheelchair users and senior citizens in a tough spot when it comes time to refuel. The presence of a service attendant would be very helpful, eliminating the customers’ need to get in and out of their vehicle. It would be incredibly helpful and inclusive, actually, if every station was required to offer some sort of service for this reason.
The state-required attendant certification in New Jersey is issued by station owners, and funnily enough attendants do not go through any other sort of check. But the certifications do have to be presented clearly at the station — like a restaurant’s health department grade.
Attendant training involves only working under supervision for one day with another certified attendant, education on the regulatory language and appropriate fuel containers, and knowledge of the pump’s emergency shutoff or circuit breaker in the event something bad happens. Almost any high schooler, given two minutes to locate the gas station’s circuit breaker, could be quickly certified as a New Jersey gas station attendant.
While almost nobody pumped their own gas anywhere in the country in 1949 when the law was passed, it’s now a (nearly) national daily habit for motorists. So why has New Jersey continued to keep the law in place when other areas with similar pump limitations, like parts of Oregon, have backtracked on regulated pumping?
Well, the New Jersey law has been challenged multiple times over the decades, to no avail. Along with the dubious safety justifications for outlawing self-service gas dispensing, some have also tried to argue that the practice inflates prices or just simply gets in their way. But the law persists.
New Jersey’s state website mentions a 2007 research paper by economics professor Robert Scott III that determined self-service bans actually had little to no economic impact on motorists (one study measured a price disadvantage of only about $.05 to $.07 per gallon where the laws are in place) while boosting employment in the state, increasing convenience for the customer maintenance and assuring environmental protection.
New Jersey’s law outlines the following findings and declarations for its Retail Gasoline Dispensing Safety Act, and why it has not been repealed:
1. Because of the ﬁre hazards directly associated with dispensing fuel, it is in the public interest that gasoline station operators have the control needed over that activity to ensure compliance with appropriate safety procedures;
2. When customers, rather than attendants, are permitted to dispense fuel, it is far more difﬁcult to enforce compliance with safety measures;
3. The higher general liability insurance premium rates charged to self-service stations reﬂect the fact that customers who leave their vehicles to dispense gasoline or other inﬂammable liquids face signiﬁcant inconveniences and dangers, including the risks of crime and fall-related personal injury, which are a special burden to drivers with physical inﬁrmities, such as the handicapped and some senior citizens;
4. Exposure to toxic gasoline fumes represents a health hazard when customers dispense their own gasoline, particularly in the case of pregnant women;
5. The signiﬁcantly higher prices usually charged for full-service gasoline in states where self-service is permitted result in discrimination against low income individuals, who are under greater economic pressure to undergo the inconvenience and hazards of dispensing their own gasoline; and
6. The prohibition of customer self-service does not constitute a restraint of trade in derogation of the general public interest because the Legislature ﬁnds no conclusive evidence that self-service gasoline provides a sustained reduction in gasoline prices charged to customers.
Oregon has long been the only other U.S. state with a similar widespread law against self-service, adopted in 1951. The state voted on repealing the law in 1982, but the measure didn’t pass.
Since then, Oregon state law has been amended to allow some non-certified motorists in certain counties, under certain conditions, in low-population areas or during particular periods of the day, to now pump their own fuel unattended.
New Jersey state senator Gerald Cardinale attempted to repeal the ban in 2002 but failed. Jon Corzine, governor from 2006 to 2010, attempted to repeal it but local public outcry made him withdraw his plan less than a week after floating it. That leaves New Jersey as the last national holdout for a state-wide ban on self-service stations. With the research paper from 2007, the state seems to have determined there is still just no good reason to lift the ban.
New Jersey and parts of Oregon still prohibit you from pumping your own gas mostly because the locals simply like the convenience, and those attendants like having jobs. If everybody is happy, why rock the boat?
(Updated 3/3/22 with new details)