The free market experiment of letting people pump their own gas is over. It failed. That appears to be the message behind a new piece of Illinois legislation that would prohibit self-service gas stations.
"No gas may be pumped at a gas station in this State unless it is pumped by a gas station attendant employed at the gas station," reads the Gas Station Attendant Act, which was introduced last week by state Rep. Camille Lilly (D–Oak Park).
Should it pass, Illinois would join New Jersey as the only other state in the union to prohibit self-service gas stations. Oregon allows self-service gas stations in counties of less than 40,000 people but maintains prohibitions everywhere else in the state. A bill to allow gas stations in the Beaver State to designate a quarter of their pumps as self-service failed in 2019.
Lilly's proposal has raised eyebrows. The representative told a columnist with Peoria's JournalStar that the response to her bill had been "really aggressive."
In an attempt to quell some of this outrage, Lilly took to Twitter. Her bill, she said, would create "safety and convenience at the pump." She also has said that it is her intention to amend the bill to merely mandate minimum staffing levels at gas stations.
HB4571 is concept legislation that creates safety and convenience at the pump. It is not intended to pass as is. The bill seeks to create options for self-service, service by gas station attendant, and jobs. Input is valuable to shape into legislation the people of IL desire.
— Camille Y. Lilly (@replilly78) February 11, 2020
Increasing safety is the best justification for Lilly's bill. It's still not a very good one.
According to a study from the National Fire Protection Association, there were 5,000 gas station fires per year between 2004 and 2008, which resulted in an average of two deaths a year and $20 million in property damage. That seems like a pretty small risk given that there were 117,000 gas stations in the country at the time. The number of gas station fires has also fallen dramatically since 1980, the NFPA notes, even as self-service has become more common.
There's also not much reason to assume that a gas station attendant who's responsible for filling up multiple cars at once is going to be more careful than individual motorists.
While drivers in the states that still mandate full-service like to talk up the convenience of not having to get out of their car, the fact that the practice doesn't persist when it's not mandated is proof enough that people are not willing to pay the costs of this higher level of service.
The Illinois Policy Institute, a think tank, notes that motorists in that state are already paying the third-highest gas taxes in the country.
Self-service stations can also create convenience in other ways. The fewer staff members needed to man the pumps mean businesses can reassign employees to manning registers, making food, or performing other tasks their customers value more.
Lower operating costs at self-service gas stations might also mean gas stations can afford to stay open later or operate in more remote locations, where business is slower. Oregon's legalization of self-service pumps in rural counties was all about increasing service levels in remote areas of the state where it wasn't economical to have a gas station attendant on hand 24 hours a day.
Lilly's desire to create jobs is also a poor justification for either banning self-service gas stations or mandating staffing levels.
The more consumers have to pay for a service they don't want, the less money they have to spend on other things that they do want. Higher staffing costs leave gas stations with less money to pay vendors or reinvest in their businesses.
The effect is to make the economy poorer and less productive. That's not a win for capital, labor, or consumers.
The one silver lining in Illinois' proposal is how much people hate it. In Oregon and New Jersey, motorists have strong negative reactions to rolling back their state's full-service mandates. Illinois residents are clearly having the opposite reaction.
This demonstrates the small-c conservativism of many voters; once people have the right to do something, they are not eager to lose it.