Full-service phaseout As prices rise, more drivers choose to pump their own gas


The man in the gleaming burgundy Cadillac, his fingers toying impatiently with the car phone on the seat next to him, didn't have to think long or hard about why he was having gas pumped for him when he could save money pumping it himself.

"I use full service because I can afford to," said the man, who declined to give his name. "If you're counting your pennies, you certainly wouldn't do it."

Nancy Marx -- who, like the man in the Cadillac, was a recent full-serve customer at Valley Exxon at Falls and Joppa Roads -- offered a somewhat more practical reason why she relies on attendants to pump her gas.

"I tried pumping my own gas once and I ruined a good pair of shoes," she said. "I've never tried to do it again."

These two customers, wedded though they may be to their gas-purchasing habits, are part of a steadily declining group of motorists who pull up to the full-service pumps these days and pay 20 cents or more extra a gallon for the service. "Unfortunately what we're seeing is a phasing-out of full-service," said Roy Littlefield, executive director of the Maryland Service Station and Auto Repair Association, which represents 1,500 stations.

It's a trend that's accelerating rapidly. "Ever since Iraq invaded Kuwait everyone is saying two things," Mr. Littlefield said. "People are buying down in grade and full-serve has dropped to hardly anything."

With the additional five-cent federal tax that was added this weekend, Mr. Littlefield and station operators throughout the area predict the decline in full-service useage will continue. Last year, according to association statistics, 14 percent of gas purchases in Maryland were from full-service tanks. Since August that number has declined to less than 10 percent, and at many stations the number is 5 percent or less.

"Since August we've been teaching a lot of people to pump their own, people who never thought about doing it before," said Ralph Morgan, owner of Morgan's Crown in Arbutus.

(State law requires that attendants pump gas for handicapped customers, at self-service prices.)

The person most likely to let an attendant pump their gas, Mr. Morgan said, "is the person who comes in dressed up, doesn't want to take a chance of spilling gas on their clothes or getting the smell on their hands." Many full-service users, he added, "are older people who traditionally pulled into a station and said, 'Fill 'er up.' Often they're affluent and they don't give a damn what things cost."

Full service in the '90s usually includes a great deal more than filling 'er up. Attendants at full-service lanes routinely wash windows, check oil and other fluid levels and check tires.

"We always tell people, if you're going to go for the full-serve, get all that you're paying for," said Polly Shoemaker, public affairs specialist for the Automobile Club of Maryland, which charts area gas prices. The

club's November survey showed the average price for full-serve regular unleaded gas as 22 cents higher than self-serve. For premium gas the difference was 20 cents. And spot checks in the metropolitan area found differentials as high as 38 cents (see chart).

Despite Auto Club advice, customers frequently decline to take advantage of all the offered services. "I'm getting full-service because I'm lazy," said a woman who -- like most full-service users -- would not give her name. "I'll go to my mechanic for the rest of this stuff."

Many stations, particularly in the city, no longer even offer full-service at the tanks. It's a situation that has come full circle in 40 years, since the self-service option was introduced in Los Angeles and Phoenix.

Initially self-service was regarded dubiously, said Trilby Lundberg, publisher of the Lundberg Letter, which surveys petroleum consumption. "In some places it wasn't legal because of fear of fire hazards. And then there was the 'lady factor' -- people said women would never pump their own gas."

Time has told a different story, of course, as many women have learned to wield the pump as handily as men. With popular acceptance of self-service, "we've bottomed out in full-service availability," Ms. Lundberg said. In some locations, mostly rural, and in some stations serving commercial fleets, a system called "card-lock" is being used. Card-lock -- already widely available in Europe -- allows credit card holders to insert their card into the tank to activate the pump. Some oil companies are also introducing vending machine-type pumps that dispense gas when cash is put into them.

It's an evolution toward what many gas station operators disparagingly call "ghost stations" and it's hard to find anyone in the business that's too happy with the way things are going.

"To us, it's real anti-consumer," said Mr. Littlefield. "People go to a service station for food, for drink, for a telephone, to change a flat tire, to go to the bathroom. All that's gone with card-lock and similar systems. But that's certainly the direction in which things seem to be headed."

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