Archive for Thursday, August 22, 2002

One-armed bafflement

Gas-pump confusion persists after three decades

August 22, 2002

I'm old enough to remember when pumping gasoline was thought to be so serious a business it was done by men dressed in uniforms recalling military attire. These men would spin the small crank on the side of the pumps to recycle the gauges to zeros before washing your windshield, checking your oil and testing your tires.

The situation changed in the early 1970s when the fuel crisis pushed gas prices from 25 cents a gallon to 75 cents or even $1 a gallon. In that competitive atmosphere, most corner gas stations closed to become used-car lots, garages or simply brown fields. The convenience stores that took over the market thought we were capable of pumping our own gas. Also gone were the do-everything, uniformed attendants. Their store clerk successors only communicated distantly via cheap intercoms.

I remember the confusion that greeted me the first time I used a self-service pump. I shut off and restarted the machine numerous times while making that break-through purchase.

I've used self-service pumps for three decades, but the confusion remains. The simple reason for this is that no manufacturer has ever produced two pumps that use the same method of operation. I foolishly try to lift the pump nozzle hanger that activates some machines only to find it is fixed in place. Or I punch a big yellow button thinking it will make the pump hum, and discover I have to lift the nozzle hanger. Sometimes you have to do both. After a particularly confusing refill in Lawrence recently, I mentioned the dilemma to the young clerk. She felt my pain.

"I know. I drove my mom's car in Kansas City the other day. When I had to fill it up, I was like, so how does it work?" the obvious English major said.

Her sympathetic comments were in contrast to the "you have to be smarter than the machine" remark I heard one jaded clerk mutter when a woman was struggling at a pump.

If things weren't confusing enough, the advent of credit and debit cards have given pump designers a whole new venue to work their chaos. They were up to the challenge set by ATM designers, who share the same baffling indifference to uniformity.

When we get in our cars and drive away from the pumps, we know the long narrow pedal on the right will feed the motor gas and the pedal to its left is the brake. It's called standardization. The new gas distributors ought to consider it. After all, they are called convenience stores.

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