Oregon’s Self-Service Gas Prohibition Probably Won’t End—But It Should

CascadeNewLogoBy Steve Buckstein

Only two states prohibit motorists from pumping their own gasoline: New Jersey and Oregon. I’m not sure what excuses the powers-that-be use in New Jersey, but here they in-effect warn that “you’ll set yourself on fire.” The ban went into effect in 1951, and the only attempt to end it failed at the polls in 1982.

The Oregonian published a provocative editorial last week making fun of our self-serve ban, but prohibitionists came out of the woodwork to make argument after argument in favor of keeping the ban.

The three most popular arguments for keeping the ban seem to be:

  • I don’t want to pump my own gas, so you can’t either;
  • The ban is a good “make-work program” that keeps people employed and tax revenue flowing; and,
  • Employing attendants doesn’t make our gas more expensive anyway.

First, I don’t want to pump my own gas either, but that doesn’t give me the right to prohibit you from pumping yours. If there is enough demand for station attendants, someone will fill that demand in a free market.

Second, sure, creating jobs is a good thing. But government “make-work programs” often misallocate resources, costing taxpayers more than any tax revenue they might generate.

And third, if labor costs have no impact on prices, then why not mandate one attendant for every pump? Or, mandate one checkout clerk for every customer at the grocery store? Lots of jobs will be created at apparently no cost to consumers; what could go wrong?

In short, it seems that too many Oregonians see our self-serve gas ban as something that makes our state unique. The ban probably won’t end, but it should.

Steve Buckstein is founder and Senior Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Learn more at cascadepolicy.org.

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Posted by at 05:00 | Posted in Economy | Tagged , , , , | 154 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • guest

    If pump prices don’t or won’t go down why blather?

  • MrBill97702

    Pumped gas for years in other states. Never set myself on fire.

    Gas stations with fewer staff is good. If pumping gas is the best use of their labor, then they’ll continue where they are. Otherwise they’ll find more productive work elsewhere (unless $15/hr min. wage comes to Oregon).

  • Nic from Newberg

    I asked my local purveyor of petroleum how much gas he sells a day. After some quick math we figured out what his labor cost were as a function of the price per gallon. So I asked him if Oregon got rid of attendants would he drop the price accordingly? Surprisingly he said no, then he added “why would I when I know your willing to pay the price it is now”

    • thevillageidiot

      the one thing he did not answer and you did not ask was what if the station across the street/down the block dropped the price accordingly?

      Unless there is collusion he would have no choice but to drop the price. without the added labor price, gas is cheaper here than WA but the local mafia (state gov) would extort more from the user. catch 22

      • marvinmcconoughey

        This makes sense but an added complication is the phenomenon of sticky prices that has been much studied by economists. Sticky prices are what dampens out the minute and not so minute fluctuations of prices hour by hour and day by day.

        Also, the dealer has to wonder: Will lower price and higher volume be more profitable than my higher cost competitor? WalMart went the lower price route and did well.

      • David Johnson

        Have you ever checked the difference in the price of gas at different stations? IN Roseburg the price can differ as much as 60+ cents a gallon and it has nothing to do with self-serve.

  • Bluebaer22

    The problem isn’t that people will set themselves on fire, but that the majority of people tend to overfill their gas tanks. This harms the environment because the gas overflows into the antipolution system, and harms the carbon filter in the system. When you drive down the road and smell gasoline, that is where the smell is coming from. Oregon is one of the few states where it is illegal to top off your gas tank. The effects on the environment are really great. It has been 2 years since I complained about the stations in my area topping off the tanks for customers, and they are again doing the same thing. About anywhere you go right now you smell gasoline. That smell harms the lungs and the entire environmnet. So stay with the haveing your gas pumped for you!

  • marvinmcconoughey

    I think the issue with allowing self-pump gas is that doing so may crowd out station-serve. There is also a risk of increasing overall wait time because the station owner must now plan for two variables instead of one as now. First, he tries to plan for peak load and maximum acceptable customer waiting time. But with a self-serve option, he must additionally plan for the distribution of customer demand between self-serve and station-serve. Suddenly effective planning has become much more difficult.

    I don’t accept the thought that station-serve is justified because it takes more labor. However, like much labor, there is a demand for station-serve for which customers have a majority preference in Oregon.

    There is likely a minor cost saving to the station owner in having self-serve, though effects on his insurance rates are unknown to me. I am willing to pay that minor cost and, so far, so are many other Oregonians.

    In the end, the conveniences on which we Americans spend billions of dollars each year are largely a matter of personal preference. Those with self-serve preferences may someday get their way. If so, I hope that it is done without political manipulation and coercion. Meanwhile, why don’t car makers design and make self-serving automation of gas pumps? Harder things have been done.

    • concretehart

      too late already have self serve regulated by state called commercial fueling networks

      • marvinmcconoughey

        Yes, and those are useful for a segment of vehicle operators. Can anyone join these, and how much per gallon is saved?

  • joker

    first I do not like to pump my own gas, let somebody else stand out in the rain.
    It will not lower the gas price. Look at wa. there have higher gas price than Or.
    It provide employment..

  • Reb

    There aren’t many day-to-day errands I dislike more than fueling up my car in Oregon. Multi-island fueling stations are usually staffed by one or two unambitious, meandering attendants who don’t care that there might be nine vehicles lined up behind the one they’re currently “serving.” In self-serve states, which I travel through often, the fueling process is simple, fast, and efficient, usually taking half the time or less than it does in my home state of Oregon.

    • marvinmcconoughey

      We’ve had different experiences over the past several decades. If the attendants who are paid to serve you won’t perform well, a word with the manager might be warranted.

    • Jack Lord God

      Personally I would pay more for the option of self serve. It would be worth an extra nickle a gallon not to have to hang around forever waiting for the attendant to start the process. Then waiting for him to come back and take the nozzle out.

  • CherryAnn1000

    Why fix it if it ain’t broke? Non self-serve gas has worked well here for decades. I don’t want to pump my own gas, and, frankly, I don’t see why anyone would insist they need to pump their own. Why? And why must we follow the status quo and do as every other state does? No, I’m not worried about setting myself on fire. I just don’t see why some feel the need to take on this issue themselves. I like having someone else wait on me for a change.

    • Manny Fastidious Ones Concur

      Ya sure by golly!!

  • David Johnson

    And third, if labor costs have no impact on prices, then why not mandate one attendant for every pump? Or, mandate one checkout clerk for every customer at the grocery store?
    What idiot wrote this article?
    Washington state is self serve – how much do they pay for gas?
    California is self serve – how much do they pay for gas?
    In both cases quite a bit more than Oregon!
    I would really hate to get out in the cold rain and stand there pumping my own gas.

    • David, I’m the “idiot” who wrote this article. You cherry pick two states that have self serve and higher prices than Oregon. One of them, Washington, is less than 2 cents per gallon more for regular.

      Look at all states and about 45 currently have LOWER prices than Oregon. There are other factors beside labor that affect prices.

      source: http://fuelgaugereport.aaa.com/todays-gas-prices/

      • David Johnson

        Sorry Steve for calling you an idiot you are obviously much smarter than I am but it just makes me mad because some people want to change what we have and what we are satisfied with. I have talked to many, many people about this and only three of those people want self-serve gas. It is cold and rainy in the winter and we don’t want to get out to pump our own gas especially when your old. I have been all over this state and I have never had to wait more than 2 full minutes to have my gas pumped, maybe I’m just lucky. If they change the law to self-serve we won’t have a choice. There would most likely be one attendant to wait on a number of people and I believe the wait time would go way up.

        • No problem, David. I’ve found over the years that this topic seems to generate a lot of spirited debates. I don’t doubt that most people you’ve asked don’t want self-serve. I’ll simply repeat that I don’t want to pump my own gas either, but don’t believe that gives me the right to deny that option to others.

          That said, it also doesn’t mean that I’ll spend much effort trying to end the ban either. There are more important issues vying for my limited time.

      • David Johnson

        Hey Steve, I just read the source you sent, http://fuelgaugereport.aaa.com
        It says Oregon’s average is $3.938. I wonder where in the world they got that price. I checked our price here and it just went up, 18/Jun/14, to $3.70 a gallon for regular.

        • David, I don’t know how they compute average prices; at my station in Washington County the price for regular today is $3.83, but I see others nearby at over $4.

          • David Johnson

            Again I apologize Steve, I guess I was mad at the world yesterday.

      • guest

        Not so long ago, WA ‘legislooters’ greatly TAX-increased pump prices. Enough so, that cross over the border patronage from OR [for cheaper self-service] became no longer savings feasible. Wail now, ain’t that a gas to grasp , folks?

  • Ellie

    I left Oregon at 18 when I joined the military, so I hadn’t driven much & never really thought about it. After living in pump your own locations for so long (including Germany – since most countries are that way), I got pretty used to it. Yes, everywhere you go there are a small percentage of idiots who do stupid things, like put too much gas in their tank, smoke near pumps, etc. Whether or not we have self-serve doesn’t stop people from doing stupid things. For the comment that it’s difficult for planning, well more customers will probably get through the self-serve lane once they know what they’re doing. When I didn’t feel like pumping my own gas in other states, I pulled into a mini-serve (pump for you) or full-serve (& check oil, etc) lane instead of the usual self-serve. They were usually only a little more per gallon (& the wait could be a little longer).

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