New Jersey Is the Last State Where It Is Illegal to Pump Your Own Gas
Posted January 5, 2018 10:41 p.m. EST
Updated January 5, 2018 10:42 p.m. EST
At 12:01 a.m. Jan. 1, New Jersey became the last state in the nation where drivers are not allowed to pump their own gasoline around the clock.
That is when Oregon, the only other holdover from the full-service era of the 1970s, loosened its restrictions. Its new law allows residents of most counties with fewer than 40,000 people to fuel their cars themselves.
That leaves Jersey, only Jersey, with its dense tangle of highways and byways, its turnpike rest stops named for state luminaries and its status as the home of the first drive-in theater, as the sole state where it is illegal, 24 hours a day, to fill your own tank.
It is a distinction that makes Declan J. O’Scanlon Jr., a state lawmaker, spout frustration by the gallon.
“It’s ridiculous,” said O’Scanlon, a Republican assemblyman from Monmouth County who will soon take a seat in the state Senate. “If I want to pull in, get in and out quickly, I should be able to do so.”
O’Scanlon said he frequently pumps his own gas, ignoring the Retail Gasoline Dispensing Safety Act of 1949, the statute that first forbade civilians from putting their grubby hands on the nozzle.
“I break the law in New Jersey on a regular basis,” he said. “Someone can come to my door and cuff me if they want.”
Two years ago in the Assembly, O’Scanlon was one of several legislators to sponsor a bill allowing self-service stations. It stalled.
One prominent opponent of the idea is the president of the state Senate, Stephen M. Sweeney, a Democrat, who remains immovable. In an emailed statement Friday, Sweeney said he saw no good reason to change a system that worked.
“When we have winters like the one this year, I don’t see many men and women who want to pump their own gas,” he said. “It’s something that makes New Jersey a little more unique and the people of New Jersey like it that way.”
Polling and interviews suggest that the state’s natives agree. The actor Bobby Cannavale, who grew up in the state, said it never bothers him, though he does forget every time he leaves and comes back, and has to be ushered back into his car by the attendant. He added that he sometimes gets nervous for a split second that he’ll never get his credit card back.
“You’re sitting in your car just handing a guy your credit card,” he said. “He can hand it to another guy in another car and you’re done.”
Chris Christie proposed self-serve gas in 2009 during his first gubernatorial campaign, but he dropped the proposal because the negative response from the public was so ferocious. At a town hall-style meeting in 2016, he said it was a gender issue, citing a poll that indicated that 78 percent of women in the state were only too happy to stay in their cars.
Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University, said in an interview that the idea of pumping one’s own gas had never been broadly favorable in New Jersey.
“It’s kind of one of the third rails of state politics,” she said, noting that women and older people in particular enjoyed the service.
A December 2015 Rutgers-Eagleton poll found that almost three-quarters of the state’s residents preferred to have gas pumped for them, and that 84 percent of women preferred the service.
And when she takes off her polling hat, Koning said, she is one of those women.
“As a Jersey Girl, I’m definitely not for it,” she said. “Jersey is very proud and one of the things it’s proud of is not having to pump its own gas.”
Some pollsters have stopped asking the question altogether. Krista Jenkins, director of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s polling unit, said it had not come since 2012 because “it hasn’t really been that much of a debate.”
In that year, the university found that 63 percent of voters supported the law and only 23 percent opposed it, with a similarly exaggerated gender gap.
Jenkins grew up in Southern California, and pumped her own gas.
“But,” she said, “in the dead of winter when you don’t have to get out of your car, it’s a lovely feature of living in the state.”
The response of some Oregon residents to that state’s loosening of restrictions may not encourage change in Jersey. A widely shared tweet highlighted comments on a local news story from Medford, in Jackson County, Oregon. Among residents’ concerns were “smelling of gas when I get it on my hands or clothes” and the potential health effects of breathing in small amounts over time.
New Jersey legislators cited safety concerns when they passed the original law that barred residents from pumping gas almost 70 years ago. But when gas station owners challenged the ban in 1951, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that self-serve was indeed “dangerous in use.” And the ban held up, despite attempts to fight it in the 1980s.
In the rest of the country, self-service stations became the norm. Safer unleaded gasoline became more common, thanks to federal regulations, as did pumps that accepted credit cards. In most of the United States, that spelled the end of an era when attendants offered to wipe your windshield and check your oil while the tank filled up and you fumbled for a tip.
O’Scanlon is undeterred by the dual weights of history and public opinion. He said he may bring a new proposal this year, just to keep the conversation alive. He said economic arguments about jobs and safety are absurd, given that drivers in other states have been pumping their own gas for decades and lived to tell the tale.
“The only thing you could argue is that New Jerseyans are more flammable than people in the other 49 states,” he said. “Because we eat so much oily pizza, funnel cake and fries, maybe you could make that argument. Otherwise, it’s simply ridiculous.”