ARE SELF-SERVICE CAS STATIONS A DANCEROUS INNOVATION?
Experience at San Diego, Calif., Indicates No Undue Hazard Is Created
ABOUT the latter part of December, 1947, we received a request for a permit to install tanks for gasoline storage in connection with a so-called self-service station. We had heard that a number of these stations were in operation in Los Angeles County and in Long Beach, but this was the first attempt to invade San Diego. Our first reaction was that the handling of gasoline by women, teen-agers, aged persons, and even possibly by drunks would be a dangerous thing. Accordingly, the permit was refused and we heard no more on the subject until the early part of 1948, when almost simultaneously three applications for self-service permits were received.
Again the requests were denied, but two of the applicants were quite persistent in their demands for a permit, one of them making almost daily visits to headquarters demanding that we show cause why he should not be granted the desired permit.
In the meantime we began to examine our position, particularly with respect to our right to deny the permits that had been requested.
In our search for information we learned that a National Fire Protection Association committee in a report on the question of self-service had recommended in effect the prohibition of selfservice stations, but that this recommendation had been withdrawn at the request of the committee pending further study of the matter. Our local ordinance governing the use, storage, and handling of flammable liquids contained no provision that would substantially support our stand against selfservice, with the possible exception of a section that gave us authority to deny a permit for any installation of flammable liquids storage tanks, if, in our opinion, the proposed installation might tend to be dangerous or unsafe or liable to cause fire. Our City Attorney’s office advised that while we might stand on this provision and have the issue settled in court, should we be challenged, the strength of this provision was doubtful.
At this point the attorney of one of the applicants served us with a verbal notice that if his client’s application was not approved he would obtain an injunction compelling us to show cause why it should not be granted.
Since it was our feeling by now that we could not successfully answer any such court action, we agreed to the granting of a permit on condition that the permittee meet certain requirements, some of which were not covered specifically by city ordinance.
Briefly, these requirements were as follows and are herewith listed in two groups, first, those covered by existing laws, and second, those that we felt were essential for reasonably safe operation of this new type of service station.
In the first group was the requirement that the permitted underground tanks bear the Underwriters’ Label or be built to equal standards, that piping, vents, dispensing equipment, etc., meet material quality and installation standards generally accepted by the industry, that the customary “No smoking” and “Stop motor” signs be posted, and that first aid fire fighting equipment be provided.
The second groups of requirements were that only “safety-fill” or pressure release type nozzles be used, that a male attendant be on duty at all times, but no roller-skating money collectors be permitted, and that no coin-in-theslot dispensing equipment be installed. Applicants for permits readily agreed to these conditions and self-service came to San Diego.
It is now almost six months since the first self-service station opened in our city and we have had no difficulty with it or at any of our stations. There are approximately 30 of these stations in operation as against around 687 of the regular service stations.
We have watched the operation of these stations rather carefully and have observed no incidents that tend to cast doubt upon the wisdom of our decision to permit this type of station.
As a matter of fact, it appears, on the basis of a survey concluded last week, that self-service might even be safer than the operations of orthodox service stations.
We made a spot check of 35 stations, picked at random, and representing 31 regular stations selling products of 6 major oil companies, and 4 self-service stations.
The operators of all of these stations were told that we were making an informal check and that the information we were seeking was to be used solely for study and comparison and not for purposes of condemnation or criticism. The results of this poll are extremely interesting.
The regular service stations averaged 90 cars per day, with an average of 6.8 gallons sold per car, and spill overs were reported as averaging better than 1 for every ten cars served.
On the other hand, the self-service stations reported sales to an average of 862 cars daily, with 6.7 gallons per car, and with only a rare spill over, and that generally when a customer withdrew the nozzle and attempted to fill the tank right up to the top of the fill pipe, thus not giving the safety fill nozzle a chance to shut off when maximum tank capacity was reached.
It is interesting to note that many of the operators questioned in regular service stations were men who had operated service stations for as long as 12 years. That they were experienced operators is unquestioned, yet with their experience they indicated spillovers at least once in ten fills, and as high as 4 in 10 with 20% to 30% of spill overs being common.
While these figures are not necessarily conclusive; they nevertheless do throw an interesting light on the subject. The hazards predicted because of the handling of dispensing equipment by women, drunk and incapacitated or incompetent persons has not materialized, and on the other side of the ledger, the professional service station operators appear to be the ones who have the spill overs that potentially are trouble breeders.
It is my belief that one of the principal reasons for the low spill over record in self-service stations is that the man who owns the car is less likely to take a chance with his property than is the man who is merely servicing the car. Secondly, there is no doubt that the use of safety-fill nozzles has cut down the spill-over frequency that might otherwise occur if the usual type of nozzles were used.
In reaching the decision to go along with self-service, it was our opinion that it was not gasoline but the people who use it or misuse it that cause trouble. We felt, and we still believe, that if we can control the situation we can achieve a reasonable degree of fire safety. Our logic here, we think, is borne out by this comparison. Tobacco, in its many forms, can hardly be called volatile or flammable, and its use has been promiscuous. uncontrolled, and universally widespread and smoking in bed, for example, is responsible for the loss of hundreds of lives each year as well as for staggering property losses, and yet, to my knowledge, the loss of life and property in service station fires is extremely slight.
In other words, tobadco, which, at best, we control but very little, is a far greater threat to life and property than is the dispensing of gasoline at service stations over which we have exercised the most rigid controls.
We are quite satisfied with our experience with self-service stations, and if the coming months bear out what we have seen in the past, our conclusion will only be strengthened—that the selfservice station presents no special hazard, in fact, may even be safer, particularly if reasonable and logical controls are exercised.