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New Jersey Monthly Magazine
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Fill 'Er Up

Self-service gas? We’ll leave that chore to the rest of the country.

Posted April 10, 2012 by Michael Aaron Rockland

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Gas Illustration
Illustration by Peter Thomas Ryan.

In an episode titled “Pine Barrens” during season 3 of The Sopranos, Paulie Walnuts and Christopher are driving to South Jersey to finish off and bury a Russian gangster who is in the trunk of their car. They stop midway and Christopher fills the gas tank. Wrong: You can’t fill your own gas tank in New Jersey. We are one of only two states among the 50—Oregon being the other—where self-service gas is against the law.
But why? That’s what I’ve always wondered while sitting in my car awaiting the attentions of a gas jockey.

Turns out that, in 1949, the state Legislature decided the dispensing of gasoline is too dangerous for motorists to pump their own. Given that New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the country, that danger might be acute here. The prohibition continues to this day, even though gas pumps have been made safer. In 2006, Jon Corzine, then governor, floated the idea of doing away with the ban, but the notion was denounced in a blizzard of e-mails and calls. Governor Chris Christie has refused to revisit the issue.

So what do people in other states think of this practice? One wag in a website chat room wrote New Jerseyans are “too dumb” to fill their own tanks. Another wrote we are  “too lazy.” But, of course, New Jerseyans who travel out of state likely fill their own gas tanks as ably as anyone else.

Admittedly, it’s a plus having someone else fill one’s gas tank when it’s pouring rain or it’s a freezing January day, but it does irritate me that gas pumps continue to be labeled “full service.” What does “full” include these days? It almost never includes someone cleaning your windshield, checking your oil, telling you that one of your tires looks low on air, or even just engaging you in conversation. As far as I can see, “full” only includes someone filling your tank. The sullen guy filling mine on Route 130 recently not only didn’t respond when I said “good evening,” but had a lit cigarette hanging off his lips.

I’d had a tough day, and wondering if me, my car and the gas attendant were about to get blown up didn’t improve my mood. But at least he, unlike most other attendants, didn’t insist, after the pump clicked off, on topping my tank to the nearest dollar (so I could drip wasted gasoline as I drove away). Nor did he forget to replace my gas cap, as happened in another station a year ago—you wouldn’t believe what gas caps cost—or neglect to squinch the cap tight, which happened in yet another station six months later. This made the yellow “check engine” light come on, which kept me in a state of anxiety for weeks. These experiences made me wonder some more about the merits of full service.

Granted, the prohibition against filling one’s own tank creates jobs—no small thing in today’s economy. But if time is money, might not waiting for someone to fill your tank, when multiplied by millions of motorists, also be a negative factor in the economy?

Some think getting rid of gas-station attendants might make gasoline cheaper in New Jersey. Maybe so, but gas is already less expensive in New Jersey than in neighboring states.

Maybe we’d better just leave things as they are. Barring us from pumping our own gas might just be one of the anomalies that make New Jersey, well...New Jersey. Deep down I kinda like those anomalies, or at least complaining about them.
Michael Aaron Rockland is a professor of American Studies at Rutgers. His recent books include The George Washington Bridge: Poetry in Steel; a novel, Stones; and a memoir, An American Diplomat in 1960s Spain.

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self-serve gas

I’ve been living in NJ for more than 20 years now and self-serving at the gas station is the least in my bucket. Not that I can’t fill gas in my car (I still have to whenever I leave NJ) I cant stand the stink of the gas esp. when you are wearing a dress or youre on your way to a special/ formal occasion and there you are pumping gas. If Gov. Christie decides to lift its ban, I will be the first person to lobby against it.

Posted by: innie, somerset, NJ | Aug 15, 2014 16:40:33 PM |

Full Service

Yep, I thought this was a union idea to keep people employed. But they really need to do away with this law. If gas is cheaper in NJ than surrounding states, it is because the taxes are lower. Get rid of the extra employee and prices might indeed come down.

Posted by: Will, raleigh | Nov 16, 2012 18:11:14 PM |

New Jersey gas station attendants

I am someone who lives in New York close to New Jersey who drives for living. I drive over the border to New Jersey typically because gas usually cost 30 to 40 cents per gallon less across the border. New York is a self serve State where you pump your own gas like most states. in Pennsylvania the gas is almost as cheap as New Jersey and you pump it yourself. I would prefer to pump my own gas because that’s what I’ve known all my life but New York’s extremely high gas taxes put me into a situation where I have no choice but to go into New Jersey. I understand that gas station attendants provide a service but at the same time I see them violating many safety rules. For example when they stick the nozzle of the hose into my tank they often jam it in there which may damage my car. I also have witnessed them allowing people to buy gas while they’re engine is still running and sometimes they are talking on their cell phones while they are pumping customers gas both of these things can trigger an explosion. On the other hand if you go to a gas station in New York you notice that people turn their engines off and they don’t talk on phones as much as they are pumping gas. I go to a gas station to buy fuel for my car not to have my life put in jeopardy. TOPRVhe answer is simple either make gas station attendants in New Jersey take a safety course or make the state self serve.

Posted by: Michael J. Livsey, Pearl River NY | Feb 11, 2013 23:22:34 PM |

Allowing Self Serve

Wrong. Self-serve gasoline stations shall become legal in NJ. You need to have a choice as to whether you want someone to pump your gas for you or to pump it yourself. It is not good to have full-serve alone. If they have full-serve on one side and self-serve on the other, it is better. Making a law saying that sombody has to pump it for you is an unfair law. If you would rather have somebody pump it for you, you can go to the full-serve side. Again, self-serve shall become legal so that you have a choice. Full-serve alone is no good! Who is with me?

Posted by: Sathya Prabhakar, Marlton, NJ | Mar 18, 2013 14:45:49 PM |

Old Law In Modern Times

This 194? law is old and needs to die. I live in NJ and hate that I cannot pump my own gas. Here is the biggest problem. You get on the NJTP or GSP and at some point you need to fill-up. You pull up to one of the 4-6 islands with another 15 cars and wait for the ONLY attendant to find the time to get to you. When he does he is grumpy and rude because he is the only gas slug who showed up for work that day. If you ask him to check the oil he simply says “NO!” So I propose that if a gas station has 2 or more islands they can offer at least one to be self-serve. The rude kid doesn’t lose his job and the lines will be much shorter.

Posted by: Maria Craig, Freehold, NJ | Jan 08, 2014 19:17:29 PM |

lousy mpg

gas in nj is cheaper because there is no potential in decent gas mileage from all the stop and going from traffic and tolls

Posted by: KKKK, seabrook | May 10, 2014 14:52:19 PM |

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