Oregon’s Ban on Self-Service Gas Attacked
An Oregon law banning self-service gasoline pumps has pitted those who don’t want to pay an extra 10 cents against those who don’t want to walk an extra 10 feet.
Since 1951, most Oregonians have been legally prohibited from doing what motorists do every day in 48 other states: drive into a gas station, pump their own fuel, pay the attendant and drive off.
The only exception to the no-self-service law are commercial customers at “card-lock” stations, who can fill their own tanks by using a credit card to open the pumps.
Opponents of the ban say customers should be able to choose the kind of service--if any--they want. Supporters say self-service amounts to no service.
“Where there is self-service there really isn’t an option,” said Dell Isham, a lobbyist for the AAA automobile club of Oregon, which has led the fight to keep the law. “People won’t have a choice anymore.”
Those who want to repeal the law say Oregonians don’t have a choice now.
“In this state, we allow someone to have an abortion, but we won’t allow them to pump their own gasoline,” said Bob Barman, who operates five gas stations in the Willamette Valley and has been active in the fight for self-serve. “This issue is not going to die until justice is done.”
Barman and his allies say filling up would be cheaper, safer and quicker if people could do it themselves.
At least one gas station owner became so frustrated with the law that he put up a sign inviting motorists to serve themselves, earning a citation from local authorities.
Good or bad, the unusual prohibition--New Jersey is the only other state that bans self-service--is the source of a perennial Oregon political battle. More than 10 bills to lift the ban have died in the Legislature over the years and a similar initiative petition was killed by voters in 1982.
A coalition led by Atlantic Richfield is suing the state, claiming that the ban is unconstitutional. The Oregon Court of Appeals upheld the ban, but the case is expected to go before the state Supreme Court.
The fight for self-serve teams cost-conscious consumers with major oil companies that want to operate stations without facing high labor costs. On the other side are independent gas station operators, the automobile club, labor unions and, so far, a majority of voters.
There is little agreement on what would happen to gas prices if self service were allowed in Oregon. Currently, prices in the state are between other states’ self-serve and full-serve prices.
According to an AAA survey taken in late December, full-service gasoline averaged $1.261 per gallon across the nation, while the average self-service price nationally was $1.068 per gallon, according to Doug Peeples, a spokesman for the Oregon automobile club.
The same survey showed that gas in Oregon averaged $1.165 per gallon, exactly halfway between the national self-serve and full-serve prices.
Predictably, self-service supporters say that if the law were changed, gas would be cheaper for motorists who want to pump their own and no more expensive for people who want to be helped. Just as predictably, opponents of a change say self-service prices would be roughly the current price, while full-service prices would rise substantially.
Self-serve opponents say the higher cost would be particularly unfair for the elderly and the handicapped, who often are unable to fill their own tanks.
The two sides also disagree about which system is safer. Opponents say that California--which has self-service--has more gas station fires than Oregon per capita. Supporters say Oregon has more fires per fill-up.
Alfred Hampson, the lead lawyer in the Atlantic Richfield suit, said he believes self-service is safer because people are less likely to spill gas or drive off prematurely when they are filling their own vehicles. Self-serve supporters also point out that in Oregon, one attendant often has to hustle around filling three or four cars.
The only exceptions to Oregon’s self-service ban are “card lock” stations. Under a 1966 ruling by the state’s attorney general, those stations can allow commercial customers, such as business people, to fill their own tanks.
Self-serve advocates say that in many parts of remote eastern Oregon, where attended gas stations are often difficult to find, card-lock stations have in effect become self-service operations, widely used by private citizens, not just businesses.
Station owners in western Oregon who want self-serve say the current system is unfair because it allows their counterparts in the eastern part of the state to operate what amount to self-service stations.