Saturday, January 06, 2018

Why Is New Jersey Alone in Banning Self-Serve Gas Stations?

Living in New Jersey just got more special, now that we're the only remaining state that doesn't allow drivers to pump their own gas. An article in the NY Times pits a lonely state legislator's call for self-serve against polling that shows a NJ populace largely supportive of keeping things as they are. Interestingly, both Governor Christie and his predecessor, Jon Corzine, initially supported the self-serve option, but dropped the subject after encountering strong opposition. People embrace the tradition of full-serve, or worry about the health effects of breathing the fumes, or the inconvenience of getting out of the car, particularly in cold weather.

The maverick state legislator, Republican Declan J. O'Scanlon, calls the opposition to self-serve gas "ridiculous", and he's right. His cause would be helped if articles included important aspects of the issue, listed below.

Gas station attendants' working conditions
The Times article mentions drivers worried about breathing fumes, but regulation has led to safer, unleaded gas and better pump designs that minimize fumes. And if a driver is worried about the health effects of standing next to a gas pump for a few minutes each week, or the inconvenience of pumping one's own gas in cold winter weather, then consider the risks for the gas station attendant who must work in that environment for 8 hours day after day. If NJ wants to artificially create jobs, let them be productive work, rather than doing a task people can easily and safely do themselves.

Self-serve doesn't prevent stations from offering full service option
Articles make it sound like allowing self-serve gas would prevent drivers from getting their gas pumped for them, but if the public's desire for full-serve is real and deep, then gas stations can provide both options to meet the demand.

Attendants increase the cost of gasoline
Former governor Corzine estimated drivers could save 6 cents/gallon with self-serve gas. That's a significant savings for many drivers, who, in another Times article, are said to be willing to drive an extra block for gas that's a penny cheaper. Though polls show strong support in NJ for continuing full service, it's worth asking if the polls mentioned the likely savings of self-serve before getting people's opinions.

How resistance to change can radically change a planet
The news media sometimes breaks stories that can be a catalyst for change, but the journalist's need to portray people as victims (given readers are drawn to such portrayals) can also make readers want to cling to the status quo. Articles emphasize the potential negative consequences of any proposed action. In this case, the NY Times article quotes people fearful of changing tradition.

This tendency to keep things as they are can in many instances be a good survival instinct, but when it comes to gas and cars, the status quo is in fact an agent of radical change. It's taken me a long time to realize, but the act of filling up one's gas tank is a bit like loading up a bomber for another mission over enemy territory. Through our exhaust pipes, out of sight and out of mind beneath the backside of the car, flow the invisible gases that collectively are altering climate and oceans. My car's spraying fossil carbon hither and yon from the moment I pull out of the station.

Culture encourages us to buy and drive vehicles that, even when driven safely, contribute by the nature of their fuel to lethal planetary changes. We love our cars (though not the other cars in our way while driving). That personal connection to a vehicle is constantly reinforced by a steady din of advertisements that glorify their use and imply that cars and trucks can satisfy our deep emotional longings. Filling them with gas has long felt like a private, personal transaction that simply facilitates our getting where we need to go. A full tank of gas gives a sense of promise and possibility. What hasn't yet penetrated most people's thinking--even my own, depending on the day--is the role of each of us as unintentional cogs in a much larger wheel that's rolling in a dangerous and permanently earth-altering direction.

That transaction at the gas pump speaks more vividly than any other to the contradiction between our private lives and our collective impact on the planet. That moment, hand on pump (except in Jersey), injecting fossil energy into our vehicles, straddles two worlds of meaning--private and collective, present and future, intention and unintention. None of this is even realized by most people, and certainly doesn't find its way into articles about pumping gas.

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