The recent — and brief — gas shortage when the Colonial Pipeline experienced a ransomware attack was just a blip compared with two separate gas shortages in the 1970s. Recent photos of people filling up every conceivable type of container (including plastic trash bags) with gasoline triggered memories of coping with much more serious shortages.
The reasons why
The first gas shortage in the 1970s was sparked in October 1973 because of the Yom Kippur War. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, reduced the oil supply and placed an embargo on countries that supported Israel in the war. The embargo created a shortage in the U.S. and dramatically increased fuel prices. Soon, motorists across the country freaked out and waited in long lines just to top off the tanks of their large gas-guzzling cars of the 1970s. When the needle on the gas gauge reached half-empty, the anxiety and panic set in to find an open gas station.
“I know I need only a quarter of a tank to fill up. I feel guilty about it, but I can’t help myself,” a woman waiting in line told Time magazine in February 1974.
The gas crisis couldn’t have come at a worse time for President Richard Nixon. The Watergate scandal had dominated the headlines for almost two years, and by the time the gas shortage started a handful of Nixon’s advisers had been convicted. In addition to the continuing Watergate investigation, Vice President Spiro Agnew had just resigned in disgrace because of bribery and income tax evasion charges unrelated to the Watergate.
Given the state of his administration, when President Nixon addressed the country about the crisis and proposed measures to curtail the nation’s consumption of gasoline, the public’s confidence in the president was low. Many people thought the whole thing was a hoax. A photo that ran in newspapers across the country showed a New Jersey gas station owner next to two signs that read “Sorry, No Gas, Ask Nixon For Some” and “No Gas Shortage, We Have Proof.”
Strategies by the federal government for dealing with the crisis included lowering the temperature in government buildings to 68 degrees, moving Daylight Saving Time to February, lowering the highway speed limit to 55 mph, recommending that gas stations close on weekends, and encouraging conservation measures. The U.S. Park Police lowered the speed limit on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway to 50 mph.
Yet, the strategies to save energy couldn’t cope with frustrated motorists who were unable to find gas for their cars. Fights broke out occasionally between drivers and also between gas station owners and customers shut out from purchasing gas. Many station owners across the U.S. began arming themselves.
“It’s turning us into animals. It’s back to cave men,” one motorist told The Baltimore Sun.
Maryland, along with Washington, D.C., Massachusetts, New Jersey and Florida, adopted an odd-even system of rationing that first appeared in Oregon. Even-numbered license plates could buy gas on even numbered days and odd-numbered license plates could buy gas on odd numbered days of the month. Cars with vanity tags could only fill up on odd days.
After about six months of chaos, in March 1974, OPEC’s embargo was lifted and supplies slowly returned to normal.
In 1979, however, Iran’s oil production slowed after the turmoil caused by the fall of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the country’s monarch. Just like six years earlier, OPEC once again raised its prices and, once again, the resulting gasoline shortage in the U.S. freaked motorists out and the federal government imposed some of the same restrictions. It was déjà vu all over again, with the same chaos, panic buying, and driver behavior exhibited for the duration.
CB radios became hot commodities during both shortages. Auto drivers talked to truckers (and vice versa) to find gas stations that were open and had gas. Before the first shortage, only a half-million CB radios were sold annually. In 1973, sales shot up to 2.5 million and, in 1974, 5.5 million.
Long lines — sometimes as long as a mile — caused traffic headaches in Laurel. The proliferation of gas stations up and down Route 1 and Route 198 meant numerous lanes blocked by lines of cars queuing up for gas. Motorists stayed bumper-to-bumper to prevent anyone from jumping the line, blocking intersections and driveways.
“A line forming at a station on Montgomery Street and Washington Boulevard extended Saturday to Eighth Street,” reported the Laurel News Leader in February 1974. According to Laurel Police Chief Robert Kaiser, “There is a serious problem at the Greyhound bus station. People lined up to get gas at the Texaco station are blocking the area for buses to park.” Also, “Long lines were reported on Route 198 at gas stations near Brock Bridge Road and on Thursday, the line was backed up to the Route 197 intersection.”
Any chance to buy gas was exploited.
“In Severna Park, several cars slid in behind a row of slow-moving vehicles, unaware that it was a funeral procession,” reported The Sun. Drivers would sleep in their cars in line in the middle of the night waiting for a gas station to open. The Sun called it “bread lines on wheels.”
A group of local business leaders met with the mayor and City Council to complain about the effect the gas lines had on their shops.
“I don’t know how much longer business people can cope. Perhaps the police could issue warning tickets at least to those who block the driveway,” said William Turner, owner of Boulevard Cleaners.
Across the country, drivers dreaded getting behind a car with a sign that read “SORRY — NO GAS AFTER THIS CAR” or something similar. At a gas station on Route 1, a car fell in line behind an auto with “LAST CAR” placed on the trunk. The driver behind the last car was observed begging the gas station attendant to let him buy gas.
Gas theft became commonplace. The Laurel Police Department arrested numerous people for siphoning gas from cars and trucks around town, especially in parking lots and wherever large trucks were parked. In one week alone, Laurel police arrested three people for siphoning gas from the Millbrook housing development.
The shortage threatened to affect emergency services. In February 1974, the Laurel Volunteer Rescue Squad “reported that should the energy crisis continue for more than 10 days to two weeks, services provided by the squad could be ‘seriously attenuated’ due to the lack of gasoline for its member’s vehicles.”
An apartment building in Beltsville was evacuated after a complaint of smelling gasoline.
“A guy had stored 15 gallons of gas in his bathtub which caused the smell,” according to a Prince George’s County Fire Department spokesperson.
The panic felt by motorists was illustrated in June 1979 when a Hyattsville man attempted to hold up the Freestate Exxon station on the corner of Route 1 and Laurel-Bowie Road for 60 cents worth of gas, which he was willing to pay for. The desperate motorist, with only 60 cents in his pocket, used a gun to try and force the attendant to sell him 60 cents worth of gas on an odd day, but his tag was an even number. A second attendant crawled under a desk in the station and called police during the altercation, who arrived in minutes and arrested the motorist.
Laurel Police Detective Ronald Salisbury told the News Leader that “while the customer was willing to pay, the fact that he allegedly used a gun to obtain gasoline constituted a crime.”
Dan Patterson, the Exxon station manager, said the incident was “frightening. This guy was mad. That really scared me.”