Are You On That Phone Again? – The Life And Death Etiquette Of Using A Petrol Station

Sorry, I'll Have To Ring You Back. The Reception Here Is Terrible.

Sorry, I’ll Have To Ring You Back. The Reception Here Is Terrible.


When you take your car to fill up at a petrol station, are you anxious? I don’t mean anxious as regards the extortionate amount of money you are being charged to fuel up your vehicle.
I mean nervous as regards your personal safety. No? You really should be.

A petrol station – or gas station as the Americans call it- is many things. It’s a place for young husbands to go when their pregnant wives demand chocolate or ice cream at three in the morning. It’s a haven for stoners to walk to when they have the munchies. And it’s the perfect place to “say it with flowers”. If the “it” you want to say is that you are a tight git who’s too cheap to man up and get a bouquet from a florists.

Yes, a petrol station is many things but what it is, first and foremost, is a gigantic fucking bomb. A gigantic bomb with an infinite number of fuses. And what are those fuses? They are all the stupid things that people do when they are in petrol stations.

Up until I started working in a petrol station, just over a year ago, I didn’t give any thought to how dangerous they are. I had no cause to. I don’t drive and hadn’t filled a car up with petrol, even as a helpful passenger. I know now though.

When you fill your car up with diesel, you are actually relatively safe. It’s actually quite hard to get diesel to catch fire. In fact the first diesel engines didn’t run on petrochemicals at all, but on peanut oil. It’s just a shame about all the people with peanut allergies around nowadays, otherwise we might be able to switch to peanut power again.

It has to be said though, that if the person is filling up with petrol on the other side of the pump you’re using, you are still in mortal danger.

When you fill up with petrol, however, that is an entirely different matter. Petrol is evil. It’s corrosive, poisonous and its vapour, when mixed with air, is highly explosive. And it gives off vapour at temperatures as low as -50 Celsius. On a hot summer day, it evaporates into a potentially fiery cloud in seconds. If the conditions are right, the slightest little spark and – whoomph – you’re human toast.

Next time you fuel up with petrol, have a look at the end of the nozzle. There’s a ring of tiny slots around the edge of the hand guard that hoover the vapours away as the petrol is dispensed. The vapours are sucked into a distant tank and they are hoovered out of that tank by the petrol tanker when it delivers the next batch of fuel and processed back at the oil refinery. Without this system, petrol stations would be blowing up left right and centre. The world would turn into a gigantic scene from a Bruce Willis movie.

These little hoovers in the petrol pump handles can’t catch all the vapours though, so there is a danger zone around every pump. When you stick a nozzle into your petrol tank and pull the trigger, you might as well be standing in a flat where someone has left an unlit gas stove on for half an hour.

In light of this fact, the Government and the companies who own the petrol stations have got together and devised laws and safety regulations. Lots of them. There’s more layers of rules and regulations protecting you when you fill up then there are layers of flaky pastry in a tray of baklava. And trust me, you need all of them.

We live in a world where so many things happen automatically. So when you place the petrol nozzle in your tank it’s natural to assume that the pump activates automatically. It does not. The person in the booth is watching the pumps and has to look for seven safety criteria before pressing a button which allows you to dispense your fuel.

I won’t bore you with all of them, but the important ones are : Is the engine switched off? Is the nozzle placed firmly in the neck of the tank? Is anyone near the pump smoking, operating a CB Radio or using a mobile phone?

The first one is obvious. The internal combustion engine, even when it’s idling, produces hundreds of little explosions a second. So you don’t want one of those running when there’s explosive gas in the vicinity. The second one is hopefully fairly obvious too. If the nozzle isn’t firmly in the tank, you could end up with petrol everywhere. And loose petrol is really dangerous. In fact it’s so dangerous that a spillage in excess of five litres requires the whole site to be shut and cleaned until the fire brigade arrive and declare the area safe.

The third criterion is a little more vexed. No smoking, that’s obvious. Also the CB radio. Nasty spark ridden beasts that they are. It’s the mobile phone part that is a bit more of a bone of contention. There is a myth on the internet that the danger of using mobile phones next to petrol pumps is, in itself a myth. It’s not a myth. The danger is extremely small, but it’s not non-existent.

Look in your mobile phone handbook and you will see it says “Not to be used in explosive atmospheres”. The chances of sparking off an ignition are admittedly millions to one. Then again, the chances of winning the lottery are also millions to one. People win it though week after week. If enough people do something that has a possible unlikely outcome, the odds of that outcome happening become quite short. In normal operation, it’s virtually impossible for a mobile phone to set off a petrol station explosion. And mobile phone manufacturers are scrupulously honest and never cut corners, right? It’s not like your iPhone was cobbled together by ten year old children living on site in a Chinese sweat shop, is it?

If you are ever in a petrol station and a disembodied voice over the tannoy system says “Could you turn your mobile phone off please”, bear this in mind. Whether mobile phones are dangerous or not, legislation says that they are. If the person you think is being a Jobsworth is caught by their boss pressing the button to authorise use of your pump while you are chatting away, they could be sacked. If an agent of the Petroleum Licensing Authority catches them doing it, the petrol station could lose its license and everyone there could be out of a job.

It doesn’t take long to fill up with fuel. So pretty please. With sugar on top. For five minutes. Switch your fucking mobile phone off.

© Copyright Michael Grimes 2014


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About thedailygrime

At that awkward age - too young to be a grumpy old man, but just acerbic and downtrodden enough to have an opinion. Read it here.

8 responses to “Are You On That Phone Again? – The Life And Death Etiquette Of Using A Petrol Station”

  1. eden baylee says :

    The next time someone gives me that flabbergasted look when I tell them I don’t own a cell phone, I’ll say:

    Me: In addition to not wanting to be accessible 24/7, I’m saving lives.

    Cell phone user: Oh? How do you figure that?

    Me: Well, let me tell you, you know that gas station down your street …


    • thedailygrime says :

      You don’t own a mobile phone? I am unbelievably proud of you. I only managed to hold out until 2003. Though I did resist getting a smart phone until 2012. I’m weak but not that weak.


      • eden baylee says :

        Confession time, I have a holster for my laptop. That never leaves me for more than an hour.
        I’ve always hated phones, even the LAN line phones.
        I just don’t like talking to people much, and prefer email because I can get back to them when I want to, if I want to.

        Hmm … I may have just diagnosed myself as anti-social.


      • thedailygrime says :

        I know what you mean. I only ever text or E-mail people on my mobile. Phone calls are for emergencies only.Nothing wrong with being anti-social. All writers are anti-social. That’s why they write in the first place.If everyone was gregarious, there wouldn’t be a single book on a single library shelf anywhere around the world. That would make the world a much duller and drabber place in my opinion.


  2. Bob says :

    ” There’s a little pipe inside it that hoovers the vapours away as the petrol is dispensed.”

    No it doesn’t. That pipe is the sensor that shuts off the fuel when the level reaches the nozzle. It sucks in vapour but only due to the Venturi effect, and it then comes out again with the fuel.

    You may be getting confused with the vapour recovery system in the fuel tanks themselves. The vapours displaced when the tanker fills the big tanks underground are recovered by the tankers for reuse.

    But yeah, don’t use your phone at the petrol station.

    • thedailygrime says :

      Vapour recovery has three stages. Stage 1a, stage 1b and stage 2. Stage 1a is the recovery and processing of captured vapours from the petrol tanker at the refinery. Stage 1b is the transfer of the vapours from the underground tanks to the petrol tanker. Stage 2 is the transfer of vapours from the customers’ petrol tanks to a the underground tanks via the fuelling nozzle. According to EU directives and the training materials supplied with the standard “Vapourgate” fuel recovery system fitted in most UK filling stations.

      Is it all a big con to make us feel better? To be fair, I wouldn’t be exactly shocked if it was.

  3. Bwana Dik says :

    Perhaps young people in trainers are far more dangerous…

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