Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Gas Pump Blues


Joplin Pump & Bus
Originally uploaded by mdt1960.
When I was growing up, one of the things my father instilled in me was how dangerous it is to play with matches and, worse yet, the dangers of including gasoline in such frivolity. Everyone gets that lecture. And rightly so, as anyone who has ever worked with gasoline can attest to this everyday fuel’s extreme volatility.

Naturally, this is the rationale for the warning signs posted at gas pumping facilities stating it is forbidden to smoke or leave your engine running while one is fueling. And as big, bold, and numerous as these signs are, that should be enough to discourage anyone from doing otherwise. However, a population amongst us appears to have anointed itself exempt in following such safety precautions.

In the past year, when filling my gas tank on three different occasions, I noticed someone who was smoking and/or running their engine as they fueled their vehicles. In fact, two of these incidents happened last summer on the same day—once in Evanston and the other, later that evening, in Riverton. To no surprise, the offenders were both young men (under 30) reeking with invincibility as if they were a super-hero comic book figure.

After the Riverton incident, I headed toward Powell in dismay, wondering if the laws had changed regarding the handling of gasoline or if the oil companies (unbeknownst to me) had recently changed the chemistry of gasoline so it was no longer flammable outside an internal combustion engine.

In the first two occasions, I pointed out their dangerous “oversight,” and asked them to quickly correct their action, without sounding too offensive (but really, who is offensive in this scenario?). I half-expected them to acknowledge my vigilance—if not outright thank me—but instead the young man in Evanston gave me a sly smirk as if to say, “Whatever old man,” and slowly leaned out of his rig and snuffed the fag out on the concrete of the petrol station. The young man in Riverton didn’t even acknowledge what I’d said, but walked away to the cashier’s box, flicking his cigarette to the concrete slab without snuffing it out.

Maybe it’s not that dangerous anymore to smoke while pumping gas. I thought it was. And what of the danger associated with running your engine while pumping gas? I reckon that’s just a bit of pump station hysteria. So then, what gives with the signs?

I decided to call around and talk with those who might know the truths and laws related to fuel handling and the dangers associated with the activity. My first calls went out to the local petrol stations in town to see if they could fill me in. Yes, they all reassured me that gasoline is indeed highly flammable and that the signs posted are not just there to make peoples’ lives more difficult. What struck me odd, however, was that no one really knew for sure if disobeying such signs was a violation of any law(s). One manager told me that if they see someone smoking, they’ll request them to put it out, while another said they were to shut off the pump immediately. None mentioned a course of action that would involve reporting such violations to law enforcement officials.

I decided to call law enforcement here in Powell to see what they knew about this. At first, no one had an answer for me, but they’d check into the matter and call me back. I called later in the day after not receiving a response. They seemed a bit annoyed, but I pressed them.

I asked, “What would happen if a police officer pulled up to a petrol station and observed someone pumping gas into their vehicle as they were smoking or their vehicle was idling away?” Both Powell and Cody officials (including one officer) “didn’t know of” or “didn’t believe” there was any law against such activity.

“Didn’t believe.” “Didn’t know of.” How’s that for getting it from the horse’s mouth?

One police official told me rather matter of factly, “If a person wants to have a cigarette while they fuel their car, I guess that’s their business.”

I questioned both departments about the consequences of discharging a .22 from my back porch into the blue yonder above. They didn’t have to do any research on that question. Without hesitation, I’d be ticketed and fined.

Am I the only one who finds all of this a bit odd—I can risk the lives of several people by simply ignoring safety notices at the pump and not be fined or ticketed? Yet, I’ll receive a fine for firing a tiny piece of lead into the air that won’t lead to anything catastrophic (unless it lands in the middle of a gas station where some careless individual has spilled gasoline all over the island). Better yet—how would speeding down Bent Street at 50 mph be any more dangerous to the general public than smoking while pumping gasoline?

If the gas station management is unsure about any laws that address negligence at the gas pump and local law enforcement “doesn’t know of any laws,” why are those annoying signs posted all over the place? What leg does some peon like me have to stand on if I wish to stop such careless actions?

Well, thankfully, I hooked up with an official at the state fire marshal’s office in Cheyenne. In that little phone call, I learned what all gas station owners, operators, employees, and law enforcement officials should already know: Those signs aren’t just for safety matters only. They are state law, according to the 2003 International Fire Code (IFC) which was adopted by the State of Wyoming and is considered law. Violations can be a misdemeanor and punishable by fines and/or jail time.

What was really disconcerting for me in our little visit was the laws regarding gas station attendants. You know the people who take your money, stock the shelves, clean the toilets, sweep the floor, make the coffee and all that. Section 2204 of the 2003 IFC spells out the following: “Attended self-service motor fuel-dispensing facilities shall have at least one qualified attendant on duty while the facility is open for business. The attendant’s primary function shall be to supervise, observe and control the dispensing of fuel.” From my experience, this primary function appears to be way down at the bottom of their list of job duties.

I also learned that all the regulations of the IFC are the result of someone seriously injured or killed related to the listed violations. In other words, we learned the hard way that smoking at the gas pump and leaving your engine running is has some serious consequences.

When I shared my findings with the fire marshal’s office regarding law enforcement’s ignorance on this topic, they showed no surprise in this lack of policing at the pump because local police do not deal with IFC violations very often.

Perhaps this local-level confusion regarding one particular state law explains and illustrates the series of intelligence blunders resulting at the federal level regarding the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

In defense of local law enforcement, we can’t expect them to stay up with every fire code that’s out there, but this particular one is directly related to the responsible operation of a vehicle and, in my mind, should be policed no less than violations for speeding or failure to stop at a controlled intersection.

Despite this ambiguous and apparently obscure law, I suppose if someone wants to flirt with exiting this world in a blaze of glory at the local gas pump, who am I to stop them, all I ask is that they not include me in their science project. Does anyone else object?

No doubt, some of you out there are probably saying to yourself, “So what? Who cares? I see this stuff all the time and nothing ever happens.” This is just another one of Morgan “Tyrade’s” rants.

Well, maybe we are all a bit lucky to date, but keep this in mind: If and when a gas station does go “poof,” I doubt the resulting injuries will be a little scratch or a bump on someone’s head. There is approximately one “gasoline incident” per month in the state of Wyoming alone. Not all of these lead to an ignition, but the potential outcome in these spills is considered hazardous enough to report.

If all of this isn’t enough, earlier this month, on my way out of town and topping off my tank at the Maverick Store, a late-model pickup truck attended by yet another young man pulled up and started pumping gasoline while his engine was chugging away. Surely he didn’t notice my family sitting in the car in his approach. In dismay, I looked around and sure enough, there were those darn signs about not smoking and turning off your engine while fueling.

What is it about these guys? Is showing a lack of caution while fueling your rig a part of proving one’s manhood now, or is it just dumb luck on my part that carelessness at the gas pump seems to be practiced by young men in pickup trucks? I suspect such wrecklessness extends beyond this demographic—for better or worse.

Like last summer’s incidents at the pump, I confronted this latest young man asking if he was aware that a vehicle’s engine is required to be off while fueling. He confidently looked at me and replied, “Yep.”

I sounded off again, “What then, do you think you’re better than everyone else around here?”

“Nope,” said the monosyllabic homo-habilis.

And that was it. He climbed into his daddy’s idling truck after the tank was filled and away he went.

I walked into the Maverick store and informed the cashier of the incident as he drove off. I’m sure nothing became of it because attendants are likely no better informed than law enforcement in this violation of fire code.

As I returned to my car, I reasoned that this was the ultimate rationalization for reinstating mandatory gas station attendants who work the pumps as well—as in Oregon. Maybe big government is the best thing for everyone because the masses can’t be trusted to be 100 percent responsible. Think Enron, think Columbine, think Halliburton. “Trickle down” is a great concept, but there will always be those who abuse its inherent lack of accountability—ruining it for everyone else.

Too bad I’m not more confrontational than my series of spineless questions. I recalled how my Uncle Earl would have handled this in his day. Nothing would have been said. No, my Uncle Earl would have walked over and simply punched the “homo-yungmanis” square in the chops and then reached into his truck and turned off the ignition. And that would have been the end of it.

Of course, that’s not how things work in this day and age. Assuming I didn’t get beat up for attempting such an act and actually succeeded in duplicating the feats of Uncle Earl, no doubt I would have ended up in jail for several days, fined and sued for over $100,000—and of course dismissed from my job.

Finally, here’s the irony of it all—anyone can fill up his vehicle while the engine idles and he has a smoke with the potential outcome of disintegrating any number of innocent folk along with him. Assuming nothing catastrophic unfolds in this gamble of lives, (at best) these offenders will likely only be reprimanded by schmoes like myself in such modest confrontations or editorials. Yet, there would be a stiff penalty to pay if someone had given him a deserving and—for the most part—harmless fat lip for his total wrecklessness and disregard of others.

One morning in the near or distant future, I’ll awaken to the news of some families cremated while they sat inside of their cars at a gasoline station. Surprise will unlikely overwhelm me.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

What a bunch of BS!! I am in my car, with the window up ...yes smoking my "cancer-stick", having my car fueled, and some **&^%&*** comes over to my window, pecks on it, and insists I put out my smoke! When I inform him that I have smoked for 30 years and NEVER had a problem at gas stations, (never been told to put it out!), he then takes the liberty of yanking the pump thing, out of my car and giving me a receipt for gas pumped, in 30 years I have NEVER blown up anything let alone a gas station with my cigarette!!! I wear my government enforced seatbelt, with all my grandchildren in their government enforced child seats, driving my government licensed vehicle, with my government drivers license, and now will I have to only smoke when the law allows???

Morgan said...

Famous last words, famous last words. Your damn lucky you haven't blown yourself up yet. Smoke all you want while filling up, just be considerate of others, make sure no one else is around.

Anonymous said...

Actually, you are at much greater risk by turning the car off. Virtually every battery explosion has occurred while starting a car. Then there is the much, much greater risk of static electricity being the source of ignition. Just getting in and out is more dangerous then leaving the vehicle running. New sealed fuel systems on cars and vapor recovery at the pump has eliminated any possible kaboom from a running auto. What I worry about and actually kills people are those that talk on cell phones or speed. Now tell me Mr Morgan.. you have NEVER gone over the posted limit? See hypocrisy can be right around the corner. I've been hit by three people, all speeding..... If I had my choice. PLEASE leave the car running, but be a more attentive and capable operator of your 2 ton weapon.

Morgan said...

I don't deny I'm exempt when it comes to hypocrisy, but you won't get me on this one. I am one of the few that actually observes the speed limit. My little pick-up runs comfortably right around 60 mph too, so I don't even travel at 65 or 75 mph when it is legal to do so. Not to say that I haven't discovered I was travelling at 45 mph in a 35 mph zone at any given time in the past, but I don't purposely try to get away with speeding. I do my best to observe the rules of the road and should I break them, it will be due to my lack of attention or focus, not because I disagree with the rules and consciously break them due to some self-centered arrogance which runs rampant these days. Same goes with the cell phone. It's not even within my reach when driving. But then, I'm not dependent on my cell phone like most. I don't even carry it with me on a day-to-day basis.

Where are your claims supported regarding the handling and operation related to gasoline? Are you a fire marshal? Do you have some kind of expertise in fire science? Have you bounced your theories off of a fire marshal? I think you should. You must believe that all those big signs in bold, red type about turning your engine off before fueling are just there for nothing other than pure inconvenience?

I agree with you about static electricity's dangerous role as a source of ignition.

Anonymous said...

Here's a new one for all of you. I just left a Speedway gas station in Ohio. I was sitting in my vehicle, door open, (pump same side)NOT smoking, Vehicle turned OFF, and the attendant shut off my pump while in process of filling up, stating I had to be outside the vehicle STANDING. I explained there were NO rules or laws that state I couldnt sit while the pump was secure. I took the pump out and left on half a tank. They just lost my business.

D2O said...

The risk is much smaller now. Venting gasoline vapor from tank head space into the air is frowned upon, because of environmental concerns. Modern cars contain a filter to capture this. Some states are requiring a system that pumps the vapor back into the station's tank to capture vapor from cars that do not have vapor recovery.

Waft of gas smell is not as common and less and less flammable vapor is allowed to escape for environmental reasons, so risk of ignition is correspondingly lower too.

Ken said...

I happen to agree with Anonymous. I am not a fire marshal, but it just makes logical sense that there is a better chance that the sparks from a starter are much more likely to cause an explosion than a running vehicle. I just think the fire code people haven't thought it through enough.