Pumping gas. It’s simple, right?
You drive up to the gas station. You get out. You pick regular or premium. You squeeze the handle. And then — you leave! (Ideally, after paying.) To most American adults, it’s as familiar a ritual as getting out of bed.
Not to Oregonians.
For decades, they have been banned by state law from pumping their own fuel at gas stations, a throwback to the days when it was universal for gas-station attendants to fill Americans’ tanks. Today, Oregon is one of only two states — New Jersey is the other — where gas-station employees are still generally required to do the pumping.
But this week, a new state law went into effect that carved out a broader exception for counties with fewer than 40,000 residents.
Now, drivers in those counties can pump their own gas without having to go through the ritual of waiting for an attendant to come to their vehicles to take their fuel orders.
The new rule comes three years after the state allowed people in those same rural counties to pump gas between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. — to reduce the chances of getting stuck at gas stations without employees on duty overnight.
So let’s be real: In the grand scheme of things, this is a small rule change that doesn’t affect a huge number of people.
And yet, in the even grander scheme of things — in the fun-house-mirror realm of social media and viral news — the new law has ignited mockery and indignation over the mere idea of Oregonians attempting to transfer gasoline into their gasoline-powered conveyances.
First came the cherry-picked reactions from a handful of Oregonians, which went viral for their sheer naivete.
"Do you think Oregon should allow self-serve gas stations statewide?" a Medford TV station asked its followers on Facebook.
"I don't even know HOW to pump gas and I am 62, native Oregonian,” one Facebook user wrote back. “I say NO THANKS! I don't want to smell like gasoline!" More than 1,000 other users “liked” the comment.
Then came the jokes from non-Oregonians.
“Live shot of Oregon residents attempting to pump their own gas,” wrote one Twitter user, posting a gif from the movie “Zoolander,” in which carefree male models begin hosing each other down with extremely flammable fuel.
“Day 2 of Oregon pumping its own gas,” wrote another Twitter user — posting the same gif.
Then came the backlash from Oregonians.
“Oregon has become a laughing stock over the last couple days because, according to many out-of-state news organizations, we are unwilling or incapable of pumping our own gas,” said one OregonLive.com story published Friday, which compiled a list of “all the rude things people have said about Oregon since the new gas law went into effect.” As of Friday afternoon, it was the most-read news story on the website.
“The internet wouldn’t be what it is today if it didn’t offer every person with a phone or computer a chance to weigh in,” the story added. “And they did.”
(To be fair, the story was published the same day OregonLive.com published a reprimand to its fellow residents — “Fellow Oregonians: Your fear of self-service gas stations is embarrassing, so stop complaining” — as well as a 10-step gas-pumping guide for “hapless” residents, illustrated with gifs. Maybe there’s a grain of truth floating in that barrel of oil.)
There was a time when gas stations were known as service stations and pumping your own fuel was not an option. A fill-up often came with an oil check and windshield cleaning.
But the use of attendants began declining nationwide after the first self-service fuel pump was introduced in 1964, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores, an industry trade group.
Gas-station owners discovered the technology was cheaper than paying wages to attendants, and over time, states loosened their fire safety codes to allow customers to pump their own gas — except for Oregon and New Jersey.
In Oregon, the current mood around the rule change seems to be a good-natured mix of defensiveness and consternation.
“There was a funny one this morning on Facebook — someone posted, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m never going to pump my own gas,’” said Shelley Snow, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Transportation. “I was thinking, ‘Wow, do you guys ever travel out of state?’”
Oregon State University student Andrew Damitio, 20, only recently pumped gas himself for the first time — on a trip out of state. “My boss had to teach me,” Damitio wrote in a message on Twitter. “It still feels really weird to pump my own gas.”
He thinks the viral tweets have been blown out of proportion and distract from the real news, which is that the policy shift only affects a small percentage of Oregonians.
The actual big story, he thinks, will come if the state ever widely legalizes self-serve fill-ups: “That's where things will get crazy.”
Matt Pearce is a national reporter for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @mattdpearce.