Self-serve gasoline restriction has a long history

I've been meaning for some time to inquire about Oregon's law governing gas service stations. What's the barrier to self-serve in this state?

— Dave S., Jacksonville

There are actually multiple barriers to self-service gas stations in Oregon (and that doesn't even include the people who just don't like the smell of gas on their hands).

But you can get a basic sense of the rules against self-service by reading one of the several statutes addressing it, Oregon Revised Statute 480.315, which begins, "Policy. The Legislative Assembly declares that, except as provided in ORS 480.345 to 480.385, it is in the public interest to maintain a prohibition on the self-service dispensing of Class 1 flammable liquids at retail. ..."

Oregon banned self-service in 1951 and today joins only New Jersey among the 50 states in not allowing the practice.

In making its findings that self-service should not be allowed, the lawmakers declared that allowing self-service would increase fire hazards, increase theft of gas, increase the risk of injury due to "slipping on slick surfaces," add to difficulties for senior citizens and the disabled, expose people to hazardous fumes (apparently gas station attendants are not people), discriminate against low-income people who would feel economic pressure to use self-service pumps, add to maintenance issues because attendants would no longer spot problems under the hood (Jan. 17, 1968 — the last documented case of a gas-station attendant looking under a hood) and result in more small children being left unattended in vehicles.

We think they doth protest too much. The real truth is that labor unions sought the ban and continue to protect it and the several thousand attendant jobs in the state.

There are exceptions to the ban: Nonretail customers may use a "card-activated or key-activated device" to pump their own gas. Also, a motorcyclist may operate the gas nozzle after the gas pump is properly set by an attendant. This was added after motorcyclists complained that attendants were spilling gas and scratching their paint jobs.

Oregon's ban on self-service was reinforced in 1982 when the state's voters rejected a ballot measure that would have legalized self-service. Other legislative attempts have died before gaining any speed.

A New York Times story once suggested that Oregonians' revulsion at the thought of self-service gas is instilled at birth, quoting a Portland executive as saying, "The joke is, 'When babies are born in Oregon, the doctor slaps their bottom (and says), No self-serve and no sales tax.' "

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by e-mail to We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.

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