Oregon Considers Allowing Grown Adults the Privilege of Pumping Their Own Gas

While New Jersey defends its ban on self-service pumping to the death, Oregon legislators are considering allowing motorists a little more choice.


New Jersey is getting some well-deserved grief this week as a result of the state's anachronistic ban on motorists pumping their own gas.

Yesterday, political news website Roll Call reported on how U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D–New Jersey) was forbidden from handling any nozzles during a day he spent working at a service station in his district—part of the congressman's periodic "Josh on the job" tactical gambit to attempt to look like a normal person.

Thanks to a 1949 state law, only a gas station employee with one day's training and a signed certificate from a manager is able to gas up cars. Doing so without the proper qualifications could net one fines as high as $500.

The prohibition on self-service, and Gottheimer's insistence that it is something his constituents are eager to keep around ("Jersey girls don't pump gas" the saying goes) attracted heaps of scorn on Twitter.

This mocking of the Garden State is likely to only get worse as Oregon, the only other state in the union to largely ban self-service, continues to liberalize its gas station regulations.

This week, a bipartisan group of legislators in Oregon introduced a bill that would allow gas stations to designate up to 25 percent of their pumps as self-service. Service stations with less than four pumps would be allowed to have one self-service pump.

The idea is to give those consumers crazy or brave enough to want to pump their own gas the option of doing so.

"Providing the option for self-service would primarily help when pumps are very busy and attendants may not be able to keep up with demand," said Rep. Julie Fahey (D—West Eugene), one of the chief sponsors the self-service bill in an email. "Having a self-serve option would allow drivers who feel comfortable pumping their own gas to do so and get back on the road."

Up until a few years ago Oregon, like New Jersey, had a flat prohibition on self-service. This was often a major inconvenience for late-night motorists traveling through the rural eastern parts of the state, where gas stations often did not have an attendant present 24 hours a day.

In 2015, the state legislature passed a law allowing gas stations in counties with less than 40,000 people to allow self-service between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. This change was broadened by a 2017 law that allows for self-service at any time of day in those same counties.

Now Fahey and a small clutch of other legislators want to bring that self-service option statewide.

It's likely to be an uphill battle. Many Oregonians reacted less than heroically to the 2017 law, which went into effect in January of last year. When a southern Oregon news station asked what people thought of the change in a now viral Facebook post, commenters complained about everything from not knowing how to pump their own gas to worrying that having to exit their car with "transients" around.

To be sure, these more emotional reactions might not be representative of the state as a whole. And for all the mockery Oregonians received, they're hardly unique in their fear that allowing a certain currently-prohibited behavior will have grave consequences. "We are all Oregonians in one form or another," noted economist Alex Tabarrok in a January 2018 blog post.

Nevertheless, even cooler-headed Oregonians—much like their New Jersey counterparts—are still very defensive of the current restrictions on self-service pumps.

In an email to Reason, Fahey cited public opinion polling from 2014 showing that 44 percent of state residents oppose the ban on self-service, while 46 percent supported it. Some 53 percent of respondents under 45 supported self-service, compared to 33 opposed.

That's a hefty degree of opposition to overcome, but Fahey says her bill strikes the right balance.

"Since Oregonians seem to be fairly evenly divided on this topic, I think a compromise, like the proposal in HB 3194, might be the right solution," said Fahey in an email, saying her bill would "protect full service for those who want or need it, while also giving those who want to pump their own gas the option to do so."

For the sake of freedom and convivence, I hope she's right.