Commentary

I Want to Pump Myself Up

With almost three hours behind my fiancé and I, the gaslight came on with insistence. We were nearly out of New Jersey and free of the special circle of hell that is the Turnpike. The angry orange gas pump glared from the dash, illuminating a threatening E, and promising a driver’s ultimate humiliation. We had to make a fuel stop, and quick.

Now, the New Jersey Turnpike has a convenient system of “service stations” — you can pull off the road and right back on after making one stop for gas, food, and a restroom. Sure, traffic and non-passing cars lollygagging in the passing lane will be a frustration on any holiday drive. That is to be expected. I can even handle the fact that the only fast food at New Jersey rest stops now seems to be the barely edible fare of Roy Rogers. What I cannot abide is the insane idiocy of mandatory full-service gas stations in service stations supposedly designed for driver convenience in a thoroughfare state.

It is usually a minor affront that sets me off, that comes to seem the symbol of willful ignorance, irrationality, and oppression all at once. Sometimes it is the seemingly conspiratorial intransigence of inanimate objects. But on my evening drive from New York City to Charlottesville this Labor Day weekend, the insult to my aching driver’s back had multiple faces, tattooed arms, and a surprising variety of equally dull expressions.

It is illegal to self-pump in New Jersey. You must have a gas-station professional pump your gas and ring up your purchase. This might have made some sense in 1949 when the law was passed and when most of the population still smoked and stupidity could conceivably kill at the gas station. But times have changed and pumping gas is a safe activity that almost everyone but the handicapped can perform with the greatest of ease. Pay-at-the-pump technology is standard at gas stations coast to coast. Motorists fly through stations with the breathtaking efficiency only Americans can take for granted. That is, except in New Jersey and Oregon — the only two states atavistic, sadistic, and masochistic enough to still require thousands of “professionals” to waste time, money, and inconvenience customers.

It was Labor Day, so I tried to understand a state’s preoccupation with creating occupations. But I cannot understand how a rational human being could justify this mandated class of jobs. Officials claim that we can’t put all 20,000 of these people out of work. But I notice there aren’t a lot of ditch diggers around since the advent of the steam shovel and bulldozer. Officials claim that New Jersey has low gas prices, so the cost doesn’t matter. But gas in New Jersey would undoubtedly be cheaper without dead-weight employees at the gas station — otherwise why is the rest of the country self-serve? Officials claim that the elderly and handicapped need full serve. But there is a federal law mandating same-price full service for these citizens. Officials claim, most ironically, that it is convenient for drivers and people like full serve. But almost every highway gas station already provides this option for the lazy and/or delicate motorist.

I sat in the car, aching, pondering the four-hour drive ahead while watching a long-lost, slow-motion play written by Kafka unfold in the warm failing light of an approaching summer’s eve. Left-side gas-pump lines were many cars deep and right-sided ones were nearly empty. Sullen attendants shuffled unhurriedly from car-window to pump to register kiosk to car window and on again while men and women and families sat trapped, bladders full, in their tiny metal boxes. And I came unglued. My tongue lashed forth in a torrent of obscenity-laced policy proposals and cruel punishment suggestions for all those responsible. My poor fiancé, concern and a hint of fear in her eyes, endured the high-volume tirade. I am ashamed to admit I participated in some Jersey-bashing. I like New Jerseyians — some of my best friends are New Jerseyians. But New Jersey has gone completely sideways when it comes to gas stations.

It took a full 25 minutes to get our gas and get on our way. I estimate that it took at least twice as long as it does in sane States for each car to rotate through. And that doesn’t count the wasted pumps at the under-utilized right-side stations. A moment in a small service station encapsulated the problem with liberal solutions and mucking-about in the economy. Here was a small sample of 20,000 government-mandated “jobs” performed by people who would have better served the economy if they simply sat there and allowed motorists to pump their own gas. Flushing the salary of all 20,000 attendants down the drain would have been a net improvement for the economy. Instead, gas stations in the Garden State are made to raise prices to pay people to waste other people’s money, time, and patience.

The system is so unnecessary, so arbitrary, so rigid, so irrational, illogical, and infuriating…so like the government and so sadly unsurprising. It would have been a great lesson for children. So for your next educational fieldtrip with the kids, you can take them to New Jersey and let them see government regulation in all of its glory. But in the meantime I will make a futile request: Please, New Jersey, let me pump my own gas.

Adam Schaeffer is a policy analyst with Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom.