WASHINGTON – After a destructive hurricane season interrupted the nation’s energy supply and ratcheted up already high gasoline prices, Maryland drivers complained more about gas stations than in the same period last year.
On Aug. 31, two days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, which interrupted the nation’s oil refining and distribution capability, eight complaints came into the Department of Agriculture’s Weights and Measures section, the most of any day between January and Sept 30.
September topped the nine-month period with the most complaints at 57. Last September, 38 people called with complaints, a 50 percent difference. And four of the days that made it into the top-10 complaint days fell in September. Last year, the most complaints came during the summer months.
It’s the weights and measures division’s charge to inspect, track and test the accuracy of weighing and measuring devices in the state.
Among the flurry of disgruntled gas customers was Patricia Robinson, of Mitchellville, who was running late to work on Sept. 27 when she stopped at a gas station in Capital Heights. She prepaid the cashier $13, she said, but noticed she couldn’t read the numbers on the digital screen as she stood next to her car.
“When I looked, the digits weren’t there so I stopped pumping because I couldn’t see how much gas I was getting,” she said.
Digital malfunction is just one of several gas station problems reported in a database of complaints acquired by Capital News Service. Other complaints ranged from sale signs not matching pump prices, leaky nozzles and pumps tallying costs before gas was dispensed.
When Robinson told the attendant about her problem, she was told to move to another pump, which had an out-of-service sign on it. On her third try, she said, $4.05 worth of gas came out before the pump stopped. Frustrated, she demanded her money back and when the attendant would not give it to her, she called police.
Robinson also called the weights and measures department.
Inspectors try to inspect stations within the first few days of a complaint, said Kenneth Ramsburg, the division’s program manager. The division’s 16 inspectors test gas pumps to determine if the correct amount of gas is being distributed, if the flow of gas is coming out fast enough and if portions of the pump — like the digital reader — are operating correctly.
Digital readout was Robinson’s initial pump problem. That reader, which indicates the units of gas, the price and the total, was inoperable. When an inspector came to the site he “condemned” the pumps until they were fixed.
Robinson’s $13 was refunded and her case closed on Oct. 7. She said the high gas prices made her more sensitive to potential inaccuracies at the pump.
Complaints likely are driven by the cost to fill up a tank, said Jerome Paige, an economic consultant in Washington, D.C.
“It’s one thing to fill up that tank and it’s $25 and it’s another to fill it up at $50,” Paige said. “I can do something with $50.”
“That’s when the sticker shock comes,” he added. “The price per gallon is still an abstract concept.”
Accuracy or miscellaneous problems constituted more than 98 percent of all complaints this year and last. Accuracy complaints are filed when a pump gives too much or too little gas. Miscellaneous complaints are most often related to a phenomenon known as computer jump, which occurs when a customer is charged for unpumped gas.
Computer jump is a mechanical problem that station owners are responsible for fixing, said Ramsburg, but can’t program a pump to do. But if a station is suspected of cheating customer with faulty pumps, inspectors conduct random tests with an artificial car gas tank.
If a station is found at fault, he said, the department would transfer the information to the Attorney General’s Office. That step has never been taken with any of Maryland’s 2,280 gas stations.
If individual complaints are verified by inspectors, the pumps are immediately shut down, Ramsburg said, and stations lose business until the problem is fixed. Before closing a complaint, inspectors return to the station to investigate whether the problem was resolved.
Of the 325 complaints that came into the division during the nine-month period, 22 percent were verified by inspectors. Another 70 percent were unsubstantiated and the remaining 8 percent were undocumented.
“(People) were more susceptible to complain,” Ramsburg said, (because) they’re not too sure they’re getting the right gas.”
Gas prices were already climbing over the summer, but when they skyrocketed to more than $3 per gallon following the hurricanes, consumers paid more than they ever had for fuel.
According to the Energy Information Administration, regular unleaded gasoline in the Central Atlantic region, which includes Maryland, cost, on average, $3.29 per gallon the week of Sept. 5. The week before, on Aug. 29, the same day Katrina made landfall, the average gallon of regular unleaded cost $2.63, a difference of 25 percent. The week of Sept. 6, 2004 gas prices were $1.90.
Gasoline prices are volatile, but the product is so valuable that consumers will pay for it and cut back in other areas, said Peter Morici, a business professor and economist at the University of Maryland.
That’s because having a car is endemic to American culture, said Kevin Forbes, chairman of the business and economics department at Catholic University.
Without one, people tend to believe their flexibility to go when and where they want is hampered, Forbes said. “And so higher prices in that sense are eroding my freedom and taking that away.”
In addition, most cities do not have reliable public transportation and are not built for people without cars, said Lars Perner, an assistant professor of marketing at San Diego State University who studies consumer psychology.
“You can put off buying a new television set, you can put off to some extent buying new clothes, but you can’t put off buying gasoline.”