As a Jersey girl, I grew up riding in cars that were serviced by gas station attendants. While they were filling up your tank, they also topped off your car's fluids (radiator, washer fluid, oil), cleaned your windshield and asked if you needed anything else.
When I first visited Georgia, I was gobsmacked to discover that there were no gas attendants. Let's take a little road trip back in time to find out why, to this day, it's still illegal to pump your own gas in New Jersey.
A Bit of Gas History
The official ban on self-serve gas in Jersey began in 1949 with the Retail Gasoline Dispensing Safety Act, citing safety concerns like fire hazards. But like a lot of things New Jersey, there's really a more sinister reason for the ban that's worthy of a Tony Soprano storyline.
According to a 2019 story by journalist Paul Mulshine, the legislation supposedly arose as a tactic to fix gas prices and stop an enterprising business owner from undercutting his competitors. In 1949, Irving Reingold opened a 24-pump gas station on Route 17 in Hackensack. He offered gas at 18.9 cents a gallon when others were selling for 21.9 cents. The only requirement was that his customers had to pump it themselves.
The idea was a hit with his customers, and they lined up for blocks, according to Mulshine. His competitors? Not so much. When shooting up his gas station didn't deter Reingold, thanks to bullet-proof glass, (apparently, he was expecting a negative reaction), the rival owners turned to the law for a solution. They persuaded the state to pass a resolution outlawing self-serve gas, which quickly passed, and Reingold was out of the gas business and consumers returned to paying higher gas prices.
Hit the Brakes on Progress
In the ensuing decades there have been challenges to the law. The first, in 1951, failed. By the late 1970s, every U.S. state except for New Jersey (and Oregon) had overturned their bans on self-serve stations.
In 1981, New Jersey Assembly member Gerald Cardinale introduced new legislation to overturn the state's prohibition on self-serve stations. Cardinale continued to do so as he progressed to the state Senate, still to no avail. Consumers almost had a choice in 1988 when Kirschner Brothers Oil Company filed suit against the state, claiming that "the law is antiquated and that customers ought to have a choice between full service and self-service." A Superior Court judge initially sided with the company but later, an appeals court overturned the decision, citing the 1951 ruling from the New Jersey Supreme Court.
So, what about Oregon? In 2015, the state eased its law by allowing self-serve gas in some rural and tribal areas, leaving New Jersey as the lone statewide holdout. Some might call it archaic; I consider it nostalgic (and slightly spoiled).