Florian M. Ptak: Our nanny state

Saturday April 20, 2013


The mandated limit on sugary drinks in the Big Apple has engendered a lot of controversy lately about government overreach in America. We have our own example of government overreach here in Massachusetts.

This past winter as I stood shivering in the cold pumping gas with frozen fingers wrapped around a gas nozzle handle that seemed to be much colder than I ever remembered it being; I could not help but wonder why I wasn’t in my nice warm car monitoring the gas influx in comfort. If I sat in the driver’s seat the handle was easily seen and monitored in my rear view mirror.

Of course, I could not do this because, per state law, CMR 525, Section 5.08 Item k., the little doohickey (officially known as a hold open clip) that allows one to set the pump to automatically shut off when the gas tank is full had been removed. Massachusetts is the only state in the union with such a law. Apparently we would, somehow, be unsafe if we let a machine shut the pump off for us.


As the wind whistled across my bald head and I shivered once again, I thought about a recent visit to Arizona where in the extreme heat, in an opposite kind of scenario, I sat in my comfortably air-conditioned auto and watched the gas pumped into my car until the tank was full while making use of that most clever invention -- the auto shutoff nozzle. Why was I safe to use the nozzle in Arizona and all the other states but not safe in Massachusetts? Did the Massachusetts officials not trust me? Was I not capable of operating a gas nozzle? (It’s not rocket science.) Did all the other states contain a more intelligent people? Were Massachusetts people stupid?

Researching this in an effort to understand why I needed to freeze while dispensing gas in my home state I discovered some interesting facts.

For example, do you know why this sanction on automatic gas shutoff nozzles exists? It is not because of possible malfunction, which might allow gasoline to spew out of the auto’s inlet pipe onto the pavement causing a fire hazard, as I had thought. It is actually because it allows persons to sit in their car while refueling!

Why does our state government deem this a practice that must be forbidden you may rightly ask? It is because the subsequent exiting from the car may cause an electric charge to adhere to the person. Then, touching the metal of the nozzle could cause a spark, which could ignite the gas fumes, resulting in a holocaust. Well, thank you state of Massachusetts! Shame on the uncaring other states!


But wait a minute -- what are the chances of such a catastrophe? Enter the "Theory of Small Numbers." Yes, it is possible for a spark created by sliding across a seat to start a fire but how likely is it? The fact is that it is extremely rare to even have a fire at a gas pump. To have one caused by static electricity is even more rare. It is estimated that Americans fill up their cars with gasoline 16 to 18 billion times per year. Records from the Petroleum Equipment Institute indicate that there are about 10 reported static electricity related incidents at gas pumps per year. You are actually 40 times more likely to be struck by lightning than having a gas pump incident!

The problem with nanny laws like this is that they are largely based on anecdotal information. In the spirit of generating a warm feeling among citizens, well intentioned state officials will impose such laws with little statistical or scientific evidence.

But what is the harm you may ask? The harm is that fostering this kind of nannyism is, or at the least should be, offensive to a thinking populace and may, in fact, cause more harm than it precludes. It fosters irresponsibility in general. If the state is so worried about static discharge being a hazard it would be better to inform the public directly via a more distinctive warning sign or ad campaign, otherwise persons like me are unaware of what the danger actually is. All we know now is that we are not allowed to do something. It is as if we are children and mommy (or nanny) said so. It demeans us all.


What you want to do at a service station pump is up to you. As for me, if prior to filling my auto’s gas tank, I am inclined to slide across the driver’s seat on a cold, dry day, while wearing a heavy woolen sweater and rubber soled shoes, in a car that has poor grounding at a gas station that is not properly grounding its pumps, I will be careful -- because I may get struck by lightning.

Florian M. Ptak may be contacted at the_observant_citizen@aol.com


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