Every day, millions of people around the world glance at their fuel gauges, realise they are low, and pull into a fueling station to fill their tanks. Some of those millions of people are disabled, and thus, I wonder why it is that fueling stations are designed so inaccessibly when relatively simple design changes could be implemented to improve accessibility.
There have been a lot of great discussions in comments here about driving while disabled, as some people with disabilities drive and others do not, but I think we can all agree it’s rather hard to drive on an empty tank (or empty charge, as the case may be).
The fueling process here in the United States at a self service station generally requires that you pull up to a pump, get out of your vehicle, and access a control panel that is only reachable to a standing person. Then, you have to pull out the nozzle, choose a fuel mixture, usually with buttons that are also only accessible to standing people, and fuel up. I assume that the process is similar in many other regions of the world, but I may be mistaken.
Our station has disabled call buttons with the familiar blue wheelie symbol, with a brief note next to them explaining accessibility procedures that I read the other day while I was slaking my car’s eternal thirst for petrol.
According to the signage, fueling stations in the United States are required to help people with disabilities fuel their vehicles if customers are unable to do so independently. Customers must be charged the self service fuel price, not pay for full service, and the station is required to post signage providing information to disabled customers about how to get fueling assistance.
But. If there are no personnel on site, as often happens in the middle of the night, when stations basically run themselves, stations are not required to provide assistance. Likewise, ‘a service station or convenience store is not required to provide such service at any time that it is operating on a remote control basis with a single employee,’ according to the Americans With Disabilities Act guidelines for fuel station accessibility.
So, if you cannot fuel your car independently because of the way the equipment at the fueling station is designed, and you are not traveling with someone else, you are expected to rely on the kindness of the station for help. If there’s no employee at the station or the employee can’t provide assistance, you are supposed to…what, exactly? Hope that there is another customer there who can help you? If it’s the middle of the night, you’re supposed to…hand some random stranger your credit card to swipe it in the console you can’t reach?
As I see it, there are several concerns with fueling station design.
One is safety. I know that there are very strict guidelines about how stations can be built and arranged, designed to reduce the risk of fires, explosions, and other problems. For example, there are bollards next to the pumps to prevent people from hitting them as they are pulling up. Likewise, the vapor capture design on most fuel nozzles, which can make them challenging to use, is also required by law.
Another is customer friendliness. In most regions, people can choose from several fueling stations, so there need to be design features, as well as pricing decisions, that appeal to potential customers to encourage them to choose a specific station. People with disabilities are also customers, and designing accessible stations seems to me like a good business decision, in addition to, you know, being something that should be common sense.
Forcing people with disabilities to rely on other people in a situation like this is not really, to my mind, ‘accessibility.’ Like lots of other drivers, people with disabilities sometimes drive alone, sometimes drive late at night, and sometimes run out of fuel at inconvenient moments. Making it functionally impossible to fuel up when there are changes that could be implemented to allow people to fuel up independently is simply not acceptable. It’s also not really reasonable to demand that people like full time wheelchair users schedule their driving trips around fueling station convenience.
One simple change that could be made: Lowering the control console to a height accessible for a wheelchair or scooter user. To my knowledge, this would not conflict with fueling station safety needs. However, I am not a fueling station architect or an expert in the building code as it pertains to fueling stations, so I could be wrong.
Another change that might be a bit trickier to implement: Design fuel nozzles that are lighter and easier to use. This is more challenging because of the legal and safety requirements, but it seems like with some creativity and focused engineering, this should be possible. Most nozzles are already usable with one hand, which is a good start.
What are other accessibility issues you identify at fueling stations? How do you think they could/should be addressed?