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Fill ’Er Up: Important Gas-Station Safety Tips

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In what may be one of Hollywood’s most truly tragic death scenes, three really, really ridiculously good-looking male models meet a fiery end at a gas station. The trio is innocently cavorting and spraying each other with gasoline when one of them has the unfortunate urge to light a cigarette and … KABOOM.


Freak gasoline-fight accidents aside, fires, especially those caused by static electricity, are a serious safety concern at service stations. The potent mixture of gasoline, diesel, and other volatile chemicals on the premises—just waiting to be ignited by an errant spark—makes these seemingly boring businesses potential powder kegs. To reduce the chances of reenacting your own version of Zoolander, follow these simple tips for safe pumping.


Don’t get back in your car.
Many drivers make the mistake of getting back into their cars to wait for the pump to finish. In fact, drivers who get in and out of their cars are responsible for about 50 percent of filling-station static fires, according to the Petroleum Equipment Institute (PEI). As the driver slides across the seat, she is more likely to build up static electricity on her body. Once she touches the gas pump, a spark could ignite spilled gasoline or its vapors. Interestingly, women trigger about 80 percent of static fires. Some experts believe this is because of women’s increased propensity for getting back into their cars to tend to children or to look for a purse or wallet. It could also simply be that women, more than men, prefer not to wait outside when the weather’s bad. Cold weather is especially conducive to static electricity, so cold-weather drivers (men and women alike) should be extra careful to wait outside their cars while pumping gas. If you must get back into your car while refueling, be sure to touch a piece of metal (such as the car’s door frame) when you get out; this will safely discharge any static buildup you may have accumulated before you touch the gas nozzle.


Turn the engine off while refueling.
While a car is idling, the engine parts are still rubbing together. The alternator is running, spark plugs are firing, and the electrical system is working, as are a host of other components that generate either heat or sparks. Gasoline or its vapors could ignite if exposed to any of these moving parts. Most states have laws requiring drivers to turn off their cars before refueling, but the practice is also common sense.




Don’t smoke.
Even a model idiot like Derek Zoolander knew this one; still, the sight of someone enjoying a quick cigarette as his car refuels is an all-too-common one. Just don’t do it.


Try to avoid spills.
Spilling gas may not seem like much of an inconvenience beyond a few wasted pennies, but every drop of gas on the ground makes it more likely that a fire will start. Never prop open a gas pump if it’s not already fitted for automatic filling, and never overfill or top off the gas tank. Once you’ve stopped refueling, leave the nozzle in place in the tank for a few moments to allow any gas in the line to flow back. The less gas on the ground, the less chance of a fire igniting.


Let go of the cell phone.
A few years ago, a popular email cautioned that using a cell phone near a gas station could potentially trigger an explosion. The allegation, perfect for breathless news coverage and hysterical email forwards, was that the phone’s signal was capable of igniting gas vapors in its immediate vicinity. Fortunately, you can consider this one less thing to worry about, because there has never been a single substantiated case of a cell phone causing a gas-station fire. Even though many news outlets were taken in by the claim, and many gas-station owners even put “no cell phone use” stickers on their pumps, the warning has been downgraded to a mere urban legend. It has been thoroughly debunked by everyone from PEI, Snopes.com, colleges such as Purdue University and the University of Oklahoma, and even the Discovery Channel’s MythBusters (twice). In the instances when fires have broken out around people who happened to be using cell phones at gas stations, the real culprit has turned out to be static electricity from another source. Although it is technically possible for a phone to discharge static, the actual likelihood of it is so small that you should feel comfortable answering your phone if it rings while you’re at a gas station—just don’t slide across the seat to grab it. PEI still recommends not using any electronic device during fueling, but only because such devices promote distraction.


Gas stations are such a part of our daily routine that it’s easy to dismiss safety concerns. However, it’s worth taking a few extra moments to adopt these precautions. Despite advances in automobile and engine technologies, they are still necessary. Static fires at gas stations are relatively rare—help keep them that way by practicing these simple safety tips each time you visit.

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