Why New Jersey and Oregon Still Won’t Let You Pump Your Own Gas
But not the people of New Jersey and Oregon. You must not touch the gas nozzle. Serious.
So why don’t New Jersey and Oregon let you pump your own gas? And what about the days when gas station attendants in the rest of the country filled up their tanks?
It’s a strange, complex story that goes back more than a century.
The United States has experimented with self-service gas since the first stations were built in the early 1900s. But it wasn’t until around 1980 that self-service became the main gas station model in this country.
“Their rise to the top was not smooth,” write Ronald Johnson and Charles Romeo in a 2000 study of the growth of self-service.
The earliest self-service gas pumps in the United States appeared around 1915. They were designed primarily for emergencies or after dark when gas stations were closed. People would prepay with coins to run them.
Full-service filling stations decidedly rejected self-service. They saw cheaper self-service gas as a competitive threat to their business and wanted to limit its spread.
Fuel sales have low profit margins. Gas stations made their money and distinguished their brands by offering a variety of services such as oil and battery checks, windshield wipers, and vehicle repairs. Station attendants in full uniforms – some with bow ties – filled customers’ tanks, a key element of their broader service strategy to attract drivers in the first half of the 20th century.
Full-service gas stations played up safety risks surrounding self-service, arguing that untrained drivers would overfill their tanks and start a fire. With support from local firefighters, gas stations lobbied state legislatures to pass self-service bans. By 1968, self-service was banned in 23 states.
It wasn’t until the international success of self-service and a major shift in the gas station business model that self-service began to replace wait staff in the United States.
“Modern self-service gas stations were actually developed in Sweden,” said Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan. “There the drivers paid less for self-service than for full service. From there, the concept spread across Europe.”
At the same time, vehicle warranties began mandating that cars be serviced at dealerships, a shift that undermined the gas station service and repair business.
“Traditional full-service gas stations lost their auto repair profit center and were forced to change the way they operate,” said Wayne Henderson, author of One Hundred Years of Gas Stations.
Gas stations had to look for new ways to increase their profits. They switched to self-service, which reduced their costs and increased volumes in gas sales, and they diversified into selling groceries, tobacco, coffee, snacks, and other higher-margin items.
Self-service “became more popular because it could create large volumes and opportunities for other profits,” said Gary Scales, a graduate student at Temple University who is writing a dissertation on the history of gas stations.
Gas station operators began pressuring states to lift their self-service bans. By 1992, around 80% of all gas stations nationwide were self-service stations, up from just 8% two decades earlier.
“Political Third Rail”
Despite frequent legislative attempts, court challenges, and opposition from the gas station industry, New Jersey and much of Oregon still does not allow self-service.
Oregon relaxed its ban in 2018, allowing drivers in rural counties with fewer than 40,000 residents to self-service.
In New Jersey, the self-service ban is part of its culture, along with the state’s reputation for low gas prices. “Jersey Girls Don’t Pump Gas,” proclaims a popular bumper sticker.
The attempt to lift the ban was politically seen as a loser.
“There seems to be one thing that all New Jerseyers can agree on these days,” said Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, when the poll was released. “And that’s the time-honored Jersey tradition of having your gas pumped for you.”