But not people in New Jersey and Oregon. They are not allowed to touch the gas nozzle. Seriously.
So why don’t New Jersey and Oregon let you pump your own gas? And what happened to the days when gas station attendants filled up your tanks in the rest of the country?
It is a strange, complex story that goes back more than a century.
The United States has been experimenting with self-service gas since the first stations were built in the early 1[ads1]900s. Nevertheless, it was not until around 1980 that self-service became the primary petrol station model in this country.
“Their rise to the top was not smooth,” write Ronald Johnson and Charles Romeo in a 2000 study on the growth of self-service.
The earliest self-service gas pumps in the United States appeared around 1915. They were primarily designed for emergencies or for after dark when gas stations were closed. People would prepay with coins to service them.
Full-service gas stations strongly opposed self-service. They saw cheaper, self-service gas as a competitive threat to their business and wanted to limit the spread.
Fuel sales have small profit margins. Gas stations made their money and excellent their brands by offering a range of services such as oil and battery checks, window wiping and car repairs. Station attendants in full uniforms – some wearing bows – filled customers’ minds, a key part of their larger service strategy to attract drivers in the first half of the 20th century.
Full-service gas stations played up safety hazards around self-service, arguing that untrained drivers would overfill tanks and start a fire. With the support of local firefighters, gas stations lobbyed state lawmakers to pass a ban on self-service. In 1968, self-service was banned in 23 states.
It was not until the success of international self-service and a decisive change in the business model of gas stations that self-service began to replace companions in the United States.
“Modern self-service gas stations were in fact groundbreaking in Sweden,” said Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan. “The drivers there paid less for self-service than for full service. From there, the concept spread throughout Europe.”
At the same time, vehicle guarantees began to stipulate that cars must be serviced at dealers, a shift that eroded petrol stations’ service and repair activities.
“Traditional full-service gas stations lost their profit center in car repairs and were forced to change their operating methods,” said Wayne Henderson, author of the book “One Hundred Years of Gas Stations.”
Gas stations had to look for new ways to increase profits. They switched to self-service, which reduced costs and increased volumes of gas sales, and they diversified into selling food, tobacco, coffee, snacks and other goods at higher margins.
Self-service “ended up becoming more popular because it could create large volumes and opportunities for other profits,” said Gary Scales, a doctoral candidate at Temple University who is writing a dissertation on the history of gas stations.
Gas station operators began pushing states to lift their self-service bans. In 1992, around 80% of all petrol stations across the country were self-service, up from just 8% two decades earlier.
“Political third railway”
Despite frequent lawsuits, legal challenges and opposition from the gas station industry, New Jersey and large parts of Oregon still do not allow self-service.
Oregon eased the ban in 2018, allowing self-service for drivers in rural counties with populations under 40,000.
In New Jersey, the self-service ban, along with the state’s reputation for low gas prices, is part of the culture. “Jersey Girls Do Not Pump Gas,” proclaims a popular bumper sticker.
Attempts to lift the ban have been seen as a political loser.
“There’s apparently one thing all New Jerseyers can agree on right now,” said Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, when the poll was published. “And that’s the honorable Jersey tradition of getting gas pumped for you.”