A new law in Oregon would make it easier for residents to pump their own gas, moving away from the framework established under a 1951 law restricting self-service gas, in place for nearly seven decades. Some Beaver State residents reacted with dismay to the change, although the law’s overall effect would be limited.
People in the rest of the country, who have already been navigating a world where they are allowed to pump their own gas, took the opportunity for some lighthearted ribbing at their Oregonian friends’ expense. The experience reveals some of the underlying reasons why rules of this sort remain in place, and provides lessons for policymakers.
The new change is the extension of a previous 2015 modification that allowed some stations to offer self-service from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Some stations in rural areas struggled to staff the station during off-hours or found that it was not economical, and the relaxed restrictions allowed drivers to fill up at night. Starting this year, stations in 15 less-populated counties will be able to decide whether to offer self-service at any time. Places with convenience stores would not be eligible for self-service, limiting the law’s effect.
Some stations have reported that they will only offer full-service because they are not equipped for self-service, or because they believe their customers will continue to prefer full-service.
These relatively minor incremental changes generated a maelstrom of consternation and concern from Oregonians. Local news station KTVL put up what it probably thought was an innocuous post on Facebook asking people for their views on the new law, only to be met with a deluge of comments worrying about the safety implications of marginally reducing the restrictions on self-service gasoline. As one indicative comment decried, “I've lived in this state all my life and I REFUSE to pump my own gas… This a service only qualified people should perform. I will literally park at the pump and wait until someone pumps my gas.”
State regulations on hair braiders or interior designers persist for so long even though it is difficult to see a compelling case for their existence on public safety grounds. Some say that incumbents in those professions are interested in limiting competition. While these groups undoubtedly play a role, the experience in Oregon serves as a reminder that the public may support the rules in place, however unnecessary they may seem.
Restrictions such as the self-service gasoline rules in the Beaver State can create their own inertia, where residents used to the status quo cannot imagine operating without the rules in place. They are wary or distrustful of change. This inertia can play a significant role even in scenarios where people one town over, or in the overwhelming majority of states, function just fine without having the rule on the books.
Policymakers and regulators further reinforce the support for the status quo and make it harder to pursue reforms. In Oregon, legislators had no problem compiling a list of 17 different reasons it is in the public interest and necessary to keep the restrictions on self-service gas. Reasons range from Oregon’s weather, to the risk of fire hazards, to the supposed reduction in automotive repair facilities at gas stations due to full-service options. These reasons, often repeated by regulators or groups interested in keeping the rules in place, add to inertia.
Those outside Oregon should take care when rushing to tease their friends in the state. It might sound silly that Oregon is one of the only states in the country with rules preventing people from pumping their own gas. But is this that different than Louisiana being the only state requiring florists to have licenses to operate?
The backlash in Oregon to a minor change in restrictions on self-service gasoline should inform thinking about regulatory reform. Reports on which rules or regulations are outliers might help attenuate concerns from residents who are used to living under their shadow. Legislators should also consider submitting existing rules or regulations to periodic review or sunset to make sure they do not remain simply due to inertia.
Charles Hughes is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @CharlesHHughes.
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