Design Changes For Accessibility: Fueling Stations

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?

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

11 thoughts on “Design Changes For Accessibility: Fueling Stations

  1. The handles on the nozzles here in Australia are really difficult for me to hold down, and my arthritis and hand weakness isn’t even that bad. A lot of petrol stations here do have low set pumps, which is handy, and I see very few with a step up to the shop to pay – unfortunately, most of those that do are isolated rural petrol stations where there is no option for a person who can’t get into the shop to go elsewhere.

    Most petrol stations, though, only seem to have one employee present (two if they’re very busy) which says to me that the idea of customers needing help is not even on their radar. The ones with a garage attached do usually have more people present and are far more willing and able to run out and help. (For people in or travelling through south-western Victoria, Australia – the one on the corner of the highway and Henna St in Warrnambool is the only full service petrol station I know of, but they’re very helpful!)

  2. I had no idea US petrol stations were so complicated! UK petrol stations have various accessibility issues (similar to those pointed out by lilacsigil – heavy pumps, only one staff member etc) but the process is much simpler – pull up to pump, select nozzle (colour coded, though there may be two green unleaded pumps if they carry some ‘super unleaded’ nonsense), put nozzle into filling hole, pull lever. I’m not sure I’d want to deal with a console every time I wanted to fill up.

  3. This is actually really interesting to me, because where I live (just north of Chicago, IL) every station I’ve been in has very low pumps (typically the handles are at my waist level or lower), buttons that I (a 5’2″ woman) have to bend down a bit to reach, and a console that’s usually level with my bosom or my waist. That last one I could see being possibly a bit high for someone who’s seated, admittedly. Maybe it’s just the ones nearest my apartment, and maybe I’m not aware of other non-accessible things that don’t affect me (I do remember having been in gas stations off the Interstate that were not so friendly).

  4. Would more “full service” stations help? Of course, even when they were popular, you had to pay more, so that’s imperfect.

  5. Wow, having lived my entire driving life in Oregon, where all stations are required by law to be full service, I never realized how complicated pumping gas is. I know there’s one other state in the US that has the same type of law, but I can’t remember which it is. I wonder how much it affects gas prices? It makes it easier for lots of people. A friend’s mom is incredibly sensitive to the smell of gas. Whenever she can, she has her husband fill up her car, and when we went on Girl Scout trips (she was the leader of our troop) it was an adventure filling up, because we had to make sure to let as few fumes as possible in, and we were in self-pump states. So, self-serve stations are inaccessible to issues other than mobility disabilities, such as scent issues (I think it’s only a sensitivity, at least that’s how she has described it in the past)

  6. RoseRose – I was talking about this with my mom today! (Her aunt and uncle used to live in NJ, my uncle lives across the river from Portland)

    I thought there were legal things involved – it’s really illegal to pump your own gas?

    As for prices, mom said they’d add a few cents to each gallon or something.

    But gas prices differ from town to town, so what you pay for full service in Oregon or NJ may be lower than what someone pays in LA or the middle of nowhere, Nebraska.

  7. New Jersey is definitely the other state. Interestingly, they also often have cheaper gas than the surrounding states. When I was at school in Pennsylvania near Philly, I’d sometimes plan a trip to NJ specifically around when I thought I’d need to buy gas next and more due to the fact that it was cheaper than due to the access (which was a bonus).

    In the area I live in now (border of Connecticut and Massachusetts), none of the petrol stations I know of are ever manned by more than one person at a time and they don’t even have buttons or instructions for how people who need assistance to get help. I’m lucky that I can just barely manage to pump my own gas (if I don’t do anything else for an hour or so afterwards), but at the point that I can’t, I’ll be sunk and have to plan to get friends or family to help.

  8. In New Jersey, the reason for the law against pumping your own gas is because of the strong union presence in the state, or so I’ve been told by a friend who lives there. The employees who hold those jobs do not want to lose them to self-service, and have a strong union lobby in the state house, so they won’t. Low state taxes on gas, compared to neighboring states of Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut, make gas prices there appealing regardless of the pay going to gas station employees. Whenever I drove through I’d try to time my gas purchase for the NJ turnpike as opposed to in Connecticut.

    When I lived in the Boston area, I found full-service stations in many towns, more than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. (I’ve never lived in NJ or Oregon.) There is that problem of extra cost. Disabilities always come with extra costs, and we can least afford them as we often have trouble finding jobs (despite the law) if our disabilities allow us to work. Now that I can only drive on good days and only short distances, I have to take Amtrak which is much more costly in the US than traveling by car. I wish it were not so, as train travel is more environmentally-friendly. But in the past, I’d typically drive places, and now I spend 2-4 times as much on train tickets as I would on gas. Staying home is not always an option; I need to see specialists two-plus hours from where I live.

  9. The step-up-step-down around the pump!

    I’m short and somewhat mobility impaired. I work with a service dog, and I don’t get him out at gas stations because I really don’t want him getting his feet in the kinds of stuff that you see in little spills around gas stations.

    That step up around the pump is almost always a pretty high step. It makes getting in and out of my car a LOT harder. It also puts me on a relatively narrow platform; I can’t tell you how often I’ve accidentally stepped off of it and injured myself.

    I also have trouble with the pumps – they’re heavy enough that they hurt my shoulder, and often you have to tug pretty hard on them. The pumps themselves are hard on my hands – I have to use both hands to set them.

    I’m also extremely sensitive to the fumes – I’ll get a headache and sometimes nausea and even vomiting if I get exposed to too much.

    I miss the gas station near my undergrad – if a woman pulled up there after dark, they always pumped her gas for her at the self-serve price. If I asked, they’d even do my windshield, which I discovered when I couldn’t do it for myself because of a neck-shoulder-back injury.

    I’m lucky in that I can get the boyfriend to fill the car up when I need it done, instead of having to wrestle with it myself, 9 times out of 10.


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