WEYMOUTH — The call came to Town Hall from a gas station owner on Bridge Street: A customer was worried that the attendant would scratch the paint on his new motorcycle. Could he pump his own gas?
Sorry, no way, replied Jeffrey Richards, the town’s director of municipal licenses and inspections: It’s still illegal to pump your own in Weymouth.
Weymouth is one of a handful of communities in Massachusetts — including Milford, tiny Upton, and Arlington — that outlaw self-service gasoline stations. Weymouth passed the rule in 1977, around the time scores of other communities were banning the then relatively new phenomen on because of safety and economic concerns.
But while most other municipalities have since rescinded their bans – including Milton and Holbrook in 2008 – it’s unlikely that Weymouth will change any time soon, according to Richards.
“It’s a quality-of-life issue,” he said. “The intent of Weymouth was to keep the smaller service stations in the [town’s] five main squares, [and] it worked. Today we have full-service stations in our squares, and people like that.’’
People on their way to work especially appreciate not having to get out of their cars to pump gas, said Neil Murley of Murley’s Car Care Center in Weymouth Heights. Most everyone is thankful for the rule when it’s raining, cold, or snowy, he said. And “people like to have somebody to talk to, someone being courteous to you.”
Murley wasn’t involved in promulgating the rule, but he said his father was. “He said they didn’t want to ruin the coziness of the town. His exact words. Of course, I’m talking years ago, but I think it’s worked. It’s more of a town-type service, rather than a city-type.”
Of course, not everyone likes the rule. George Kairouz, owner of Main Street Gulf, thinks it’s “horrible, horrible, horrible” for a litany of reasons. Ironically, his chief concern is also safety.
Safety was a big factor cited — besides wanting to preserve local business in the squares and protect local jobs — when Weymouth banned self-service gas on a 154-28 vote at Town Meeting 36 years ago, when gas cost less than $2 a gallon.
“The average person is not aware of the destructive properties of gasoline,” then-Fire Chief James Stevens argued, adding that the Massachusetts Fire Chiefs Association wanted a statewide moratorium on the stations until their safety could be assessed.
But consumers have grown a lot more comfortable with gasoline, and Kairouz and others, including Steve Dodge of the Massachusetts Petroleum Council, — point to regulations that they say now make self-service gas stations even safer than full-service ones.
For example, Massachusetts law requires the canopies over pumps at self-serve stations to be equipped with automatic fire suppression systems that spray foam on any fire below, according to Jennifer Mieth of the state fire marshal’s office. There is no similar requirement for full-service stations, she said.
Self-service stations also must have a console that allows an attendant to turn off the fueling operation remotely — a safety measure not required at full-service stations, Mieth said.
“The safety of self-service is no longer an issue,” Dodge said.
“Right now there are roughly 40 million fill-ups at convenience stores a day, and it’s pretty hard to find one that didn’t go well,” said Jeff Lenard of the National Association for Convenience Stores. “So the safety issue is perhaps a relic of a different time.”
Kairouz said self-service also improves safety by forcing drivers to pay attention. He said motorists pumping their own gas are more likely than an attendant monitoring several pumps to notice if gas is spilling from a nozzle. And they’re less likely to drive away with the nozzle still in their car, he said.
Running a full-service station also increases Kairouz’s labor and maintenance costs, while he has to keep his gas prices competitive with neighboring towns without those expenses. “I don’t see anything good about full service,” he said.
A daily survey of local gas prices on GasBuddy.com shows that the prices at Weymouth’s full-serve stations are comparable to those at self-service stations in adjacent communities, including Quincy, Braintree, Holbrook, and Hingham.
Ramez Metri encountered another problem with the full-service policy when he opened a convenience store and Dunkin’ Donuts last spring at his Lincoln Square Shell on Washington Street. He found that because drivers don’t have to get out of their cars to pump gas, disappointingly few go inside. “It would be way better if it were self-serve,” he said.
Mike Yazbeck, manager of the Family Service Station on Main Street, said he has no strong feelings either way about the Weymouth rule. But he remembers a customer who was astonished by it.
“An older gentleman came in to get gas and my brother was pumping it,” Yazbeck said. “He took out a squeegee to clean the windshield, and the man got out of his car and said, ‘Stop!’ He went to his trunk and took out a camera and took a picture. He was so excited.
“He said he was from Florida, and that if you didn’t pump your own gas there, you didn’t get gas. And nobody washed your windshield.”
One argument nationally against self-service bans is that they stifle business. But Richards said that hasn’t been the case in Weymouth.
“We haven’t had the problem of someone saying they want to go somewhere else” because they can’t have self-service, “at least not since 1986, when I came here,” he said, adding that all the major gas brands and independents are represented among the 25 gas stations in Weymouth.
Richards said the last time there was serious talk of lifting the ban on self-service in Weymouth was about a decade ago, when B.J.’s Wholesale Club wanted to open a self-service station. Stop & Shop also inquired about the possibility, he said. B.J.’s dropped the idea, and Stop & Shop teamed up with local Shell stations instead, he said.
Gas stations began operating in the early 1900s about the time the first paved roads appeared and the first gas pump was invented, according to a timetable prepared by the National Association of Convenience Stores. In 1913, the first drive-up service station that was specifically designed to sell fuel opened in Pittsburgh; on its first day, it sold 30 gallons of gasoline at 27 cents per gallon.
Self-service was introduced briefly in 1930, and then again more successfully in 1947, when Frank Urich opened a station in Los Angeles, using self-serve as a major draw with the slogan “Save 5 cents, serve yourself, why pay more?” The practice spread slowly as it hit resistance, mostly from officials worried about safety and the loss of jobs, and by 1968, 23 states had banned self-service. As late as the early 1980s, statistics show the majority of gas stations nationally were full-service.
The trend shifted with safety improvements and growing public acceptance; by 1992, about 80 percent of gas was sold nationally at self-service stations, according to industry statistics. In Massachusetts, the overwhelming majority of the approximately 2,500 gas stations now are self-serve, according to industry spokesman Dodge.
Today, only New Jersey and Oregon have statewide self-service bans — Oregon’s dating from 1951 and New Jersey’s from 1949. Both states have resisted challenges to the rules. A 2007 study by Monmouth University economist Robert Scott III concluded that the bans had positive effects — creating low-skilled jobs and benefiting disabled and elderly people — and didn’t increase gas prices or the time it took at the pump.
Dodge is not convinced that local bans make sense, though. So why does Weymouth’s rule persist? “Tradition may be part of it,” he conceded.Johanna Seltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.