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You haven't been able to pump own gas in New Jersey since 1949. That might change


Anyone who's ever driven through New Jersey knows when it's time to fill the car, you can keep your seatbelt on. Pumping your own gas is forbidden. That's been the law for decades. Now New Jersey lawmakers are debating whether to end it. Gas station owners say it would help ease a labor shortage and bring prices down, but some drivers and politicians are skeptical. NPR's Laura Benshoff reports.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: At a small gas station in South Jersey, Chafen Pourier (ph) is sitting in her car. She says, sure, she knows how to pump her own gas.

CHAFEN POURIER: I do. Do I want to? No.

BENSHOFF: From the driver's seat, Pourier waves her hand at the cold drizzle outside.

POURIER: I'm not getting out of my car, especially when it's raining. No, I like it just the way it is.

BENSHOFF: New Jersey is one of two states where drivers are not allowed to pump their own gas. Oregon is the other one, although that state's ban is relaxed in rural areas. Now a bill in the New Jersey legislature would allow gas stations to offer self-service. Bigger ones would still be required to have a full service option between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Sal Risalvato with the New Jersey Gasoline, Convenience Store and Automotive Association says it would help fix the current labor shortage.

SAL RISALVATO: I have members on busy highways that they have to close sometimes during the day for a couple of hours because a shift ends, they don't have anybody to cover.

BENSHOFF: But Risalvato knows his group faces opposition. For decades, New Jersey didn't raise its gas tax. Combined with a ban on pumping your own gas, and a culture emerged.

RISALVATO: We have cheap gas, and we don't have to pump it.

BENSHOFF: That's changed. New Jersey now has some of the highest gas taxes in the country, according to the American Petroleum Institute. Drivers here now pay around the national average for gas. But the culture remains, says Risalvato.

RISALVATO: And the bumper sticker and the T-shirts - Jersey Girls Don't Pump Gas. And it became a source of pride.

BENSHOFF: He claims if the self-serve law passes, gas stations could afford to lower prices at the pump up to $0.23 a gallon. But so far, the Garden State's top politicians haven't embraced the bill, though they haven't completely ruled it out, either. Here's Democratic Governor Phil Murphy at a press briefing after it was introduced.


PHIL MURPHY: Listen; on self-service gas, that's been sort of a political third rail in New Jersey, which I have historically not crossed.

BENSHOFF: But he says he's open to anything that makes the Garden State more affordable. Senate President Nicholas Scutari said in a statement that he also doesn't support the bill, but he would reconsider if there's data to show the public is behind it and residents would save money.

Outside a convenience store in Camden County, Kay Robinson (ph) is waiting for her husband after filling up. She says she doesn't support the bill because a lot of her friends worked at gas stations when they were younger.

KAY ROBINSON: It was a good job to have. Like, I don't know how much they get paid now, but it was a good job to have back then to actually, you know, have a good amount of money in their pocket. So what are they - you know, what are they going to do now?

BENSHOFF: But she's noticed many stations are down workers and, like most New Jerseyans in a recent poll, would support adding self-serve, but only if full service is still available. So she doesn't support this bill.

ROBINSON: Yeah, I don't like it. That's my quote (laughter).

BENSHOFF: And, Robinson says, getting rid of full-service stations would change how she feels about living in the Garden State. Laura Benshoff, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Benshoff
Laura Benshoff is a reporter covering energy and climate for NPR's National desk. Prior to this assignment, she spent eight years at WHYY, Philadelphia's NPR Member station. There, she most recently focused on the economy and immigration. She has reported on the causes of the Great Resignation, Afghans left behind after the U.S. troop withdrawal and how a government-backed rent-to-own housing program failed its tenants. Other highlights from her time at WHYY include exploring the dynamics of the 2020 presidential election cycle through changing communities in central Pennsylvania and covering comedian Bill Cosby's criminal trials.