It was a news story that resonated with a populace subjected to sticker shock at the gasoline pump for too long now. Gas station owners and managers in central Maine and Down East were lamenting the increasing number of “drive-offs” – those sorry deadbeats who fill up their gas tanks and then head for the open road in lieu of paying their tab.
“In the last six months, we’ve had a real problem,” Newport Police Chief Leonard Macdaid told Bangor Daily News reporter Sharon Kiley-Mack. “We used to get one [drive-off complaint] a week, and now we’re getting five or six a week.”
Newport’s Mobil on the Run – considering the circumstances, an aptly named establishment if ever I’ve heard of one – reported two drive-offs last weekend. The station is near Interstate 95 with its ideal clean getaway potential for brazen gasoline thieves. A representative of the A.E. Robinson Mobil Mart at Pittsfield said her store gets stiffed several times a week by drive-offs, mostly at night, and usually for $40 to $50 each.
The problem is not confined to the Pittsfield-Newport corridor. With gasoline prices so high, drive-offs occur in all areas of the state. Nationwide, gasoline theft was a $134 million problem for retailers last year. The figures for this year’s haul will easily top that, according to those who profess to keep track of such things.
What to do? Many gas stations have switched to a pre-pay system, at least during hours when thefts are more likely to occur. No pre-pay, no gasoline. But this can turn off your average bear who has little patience for standing in a long line at a convenience store counter where time stands still as Bubba at the head of the pack cashes in 40 bucks worth of scratch-off lottery tickets.
When a potential customer can simply move on to another gas station that doesn’t require him to pay up front, with all its attendant aggravation, he often will. Trust me. Been there, done that.
Reportedly, a fuel nozzle that locks in place in a vehicle’s filler pipe until the customer has paid is about to be marketed. At first blush, this may seem like an idea whose time has arrived. But who is to say that when gas prices inevitably head upward again thieves won’t merely drive off with the hose still attached to their vehicle? It wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened. Granted, the maneuver is usually performed by some old coot with his turn signal lights still blinking away and his mind on something other than the ridiculous cost of gasoline. But, still …
Some readers have suggested that the drive-off problem would disappear if service stations were to revive the practice of having an attendant pump gasoline for customers and take their money, making change on the spot. Clean transaction, no hassle and another satisfied customer is soon on his way.
Many owners claim they can’t afford to pay an attendant, but this back-to-basics approach seems to work just swell where it is still employed – Greenville, Caribou and Milo being three places that come immediately to mind. At one gas station, the man will also clean bug juice from your windshield while he explains just why it is that this country is going to hell in a handbasket. (Hint: It has to do with the impressive level of nincompoopery in high places.) Service with a smile and a civics lesson. Can’t beat that.
One station manager interviewed for the newspaper story charitably said that sometimes, because customers have made other purchases at the gas station-cum-convenience store and restaurant complex and banking facility, they simply forget that they owe for gas, as well.
Solution: All the clerk behind the counter has to do is ask, although perhaps a bit more elegantly than one I knew in my previous incarnation down river a ways when that tiresome “Got milk?” moustache ad was everywhere you turned. “Got gas?” he would ask, playing straight man to the client as the sale was being rung up.
Only the smart alecks were unable to resist the predictable comeback: “No. I always have this pained look on my face.”
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.