I’ve been seeing an interesting news item that keeps coming up: Apparently, starting on January 1, gas stations in rural parts of Oregon are now allowed to offer self serve pumps.
If you don’t live in Oregon or New Jersey or haven’t spent a lot of time there, you may be wondering why this is news, or why this is even a thing. Here’s why. Until this week, it has been illegal to pump your own gasoline in Oregon. (There is a similar law in New Jersey, which is why I mentioned it, but nothing else in this week’s post relates directly to New Jersey.) Drivers in the other 48 states, which contain about 96 percent of the population of the United States, regularly use gas pumps without any major incidents or adverse effects. But for some reason which I haven’t researched thoroughly, these two states decided that they would prefer to place the act of pumping gas in the hands of people who actually work for the gas stations. (A quick Google search suggests that it was historically for safety reasons, since pumping gas involves working with hazardous flammable substances.)
At any rate, the Internet exploded with Oregonians complaining about the inconvenience and safety hazards of pumping their own gasoline, or bragging about how they don’t know how to pump their own gas, and suggesting this is a job better left for trained professionals. And the memes followed soon after this. I can’t tell (Poe’s Law) if these are actual complaints by actual Oregonians afraid to pump their own gas or trolls mocking them. Probably a mix of both.
There are two important points being missed here, the first of which is what the law actually says. It says that gas stations IN RURAL COUNTIES have the OPTION of allowing self-service gasoline. Most Oregonians do not live in the areas affected, by the definition of “rural.” And any rural gas station can still offer the option of having an attendant pump gas. This was the norm everywhere until the mid-20th century. So why do self-service gas stations exist in the first place? It costs less to not have to pay an attendant. As automobile travel became more common, more people preferred paying less, even if it meant pumping their own gas, and full-service gas stations either went out of business or stopped offering that service, because so few people were willing to pay extra for it. This is exactly how capitalism and the free market is supposed to work. There is nothing stopping someone from opening a full-service gas station in one of the 48 states that allow self-service pumps, except for the fact that in most areas, they probably would not get enough customers to stay open. It’s just like how there is nothing stopping someone from opening a video rental store or an ice block delivery service so people can keep their food cold. They just would not get many customers in this era.
As for the second important point… story time. The setting is a self-service gas station in Davis, California, in the fall of 1994. I think it was the Chevron station on Anderson Road at the corner of West Covell Boulevard, across the street from Save Mart (which was Lucky at the time and was Albertson’s for a while in between). I was 18, on my own for the first time. A few weeks earlier, I had moved from my parents’ house into a dorm that doesn’t exist anymore on the UC Davis campus, and at the time, students who lived in undergraduate dorms were still allowed to park cars at the dorms (although it cost extra). I needed to fill my tank for the first time, and when I got to the gas station, I realized I had no idea what to do. I had been driving for two years, but I had never had to fill my own tank. My family pretty much had all shared one car for much of the two years I had been driving. On the few occasions when we needed two different cars for different family members to be in different places, we would borrow a car from either Grandma or Grandpa, who were retired and in their 70s at the time and still both had cars despite not using them all that often. (Grandpa passed away in 2003, but Grandma is still alive at 97 and still has the same 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass, I think, although now on its last proverbial legs. And I might be off by a couple years on the car model year.)
The point is that I was never made responsible for filling my own tank. Someone else would always do it for me. Besides not having a car that was entirely my own, I also grew up in a fairly sheltered family, where I was not often forced to learn and experience new things. I don’t remember exactly what I did that afternoon in 1994; I think I parked, found a pay phone, and called home, panicky, asking what to do. And through some combination of listening to Mom or Dad and reading instructions, I figured it out. I filled my own gas tank. No one died, there was no explosion. Instead, although I may not have realized it, I felt accomplished. I learned something new. And that’s part of growing up: learning new life skills, so I don’t have to have someone do everything for me forever.
So maybe those people who live in areas affected by this new law should embrace the challenge instead of complaining about it. They get to join the other 96% of the population and learn how to do something useful. Trust me… you’ll feel good about yourself once you do.
Now that I’ve finished writing this week’s post early, I’m going to go run some errands, one of which will be getting gas.