No Cell Phones While Pumping Gas

A Connecticut senator, Andrea Stillman, has introduced a bill into the state legislature to impose a $250 fine on anyone who uses a cell phone while pumping gas. She sees it as a public health issue. Here's her reasoning:

Stillman said there are already warnings pasted on gas pumps informing people that a cell phone in the proximity of a gas pump could cause an electrical charge that might ignite the pump. However, she said, there are no penalties.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I thought that whole thing about cell phones making gas pumps blow up was just an urban legend. Engadget agrees, pointing out that "there’s no evidence that a cellphone has ever sparked a fire at a gas station."

Law/Police/Crime Urban Legends

Posted on Wed Mar 09, 2005


Maybe Sen. Stillman should study these issues more closely before proposing legislation to cure non-existant problems
Posted by JoeSixpack  on  Wed Mar 09, 2005  at  11:17 PM
I'm reminded of the legislation to ban Dihydrogen Monoxide..

MythBusters did a segment on this. Wholly bogus. They had to set off their big explosion some other way. There's a greter risk of a static discharge setting things off. I'm just glad I don't live in Conn.
Posted by Bobcat  in  Californian Wierdo  on  Wed Mar 09, 2005  at  11:29 PM
Try bringing a cellphone into an oil refinery or a gas compressor station and you will be sacked immediately. Look up "Intrinsically Safe" (IS) electronics and you will see that it's quite possible for cellphones, 2 way radios etc to cause ignition. It's rare but a risk you don't want to take. AC, low voltage DC and analog control circuits have to go through intrinsically safe barriers before leaving the PLC panels and out into the field when you are dealing with a potentially explosive atmosphere. I'm amazed that it's legal anywhere to use cellphones at a gas station.

Mythbusters is highly entertaining but they aren't scientists - they are SFX guys. Don't assume everything you see on TV is true wink
Posted by engineer  in  Australia  on  Thu Mar 10, 2005  at  01:08 AM
A few years back, while living in Boise, Idaho, I watched with horror as a guy pumped gasoline while a lit cigarette dangled from his mouth. I was sorely tempted to say something to him but he looked like the kind of guy who wouldn't have taken constructive criticism well. Now, THERE'S the asshole you want to fine! Better yet, lock that cretin up.
Posted by Cranky Media Guy  on  Thu Mar 10, 2005  at  02:37 AM
Saw the Myth Busters episode myself. If you watched carefully, the tried every conceivable way to make the cell phone be the cause of the fuel explosion, including enclosing the cell phone in a plastic box with massive amounts of fuel/air concentration. Nothing they tried involving the cell phone could get the mixture to explode. What they finally got the explosion from was a certain type car seat fabric and underwear rubbed together to cause static electricity, a spark, and BLAMMO! Some people are idiots (Andrea Stillman) and will beleive anything they hear without seeing the evidence to back the claims. She just wants your money and doesn't care about public safety.
Posted by Christopher  in  Joplin, Missouri  on  Thu Mar 10, 2005  at  05:00 AM
...I guess I should start wearing pants to the gas station.
Posted by Maegan  in  Tampa, FL - USA  on  Thu Mar 10, 2005  at  05:16 AM
Static electricity, yay. My father was filling a metal gas can in the back of his truck, and the metal nozzel touched against the metal can and made a spark, that set the can on fire. He simply covered the can until it went out, calmly removed it from the truck and set it on the ground, let it cool, and then continued to fill it.

But he did get some interesting stares from the people nearby.

A law fining people for filling their gas cans in an ungrounded vehicle would probably prevent more fires than this one.
Posted by Splarka  on  Thu Mar 10, 2005  at  06:08 AM
As far as risk goes, Yes, it is POSSIBLE that a cell phone could cause an explosion in an environment that contains flammable gases. It is not PROBABLE that a cell phone would cause such an explosion for a variety of factors.

Yes, Intrinsic Safety is an important issue but the concerns with that seem to stem more form electronics immersed in a possible hostile gas (not gasoline, more like propane and methane) environment (as in the aforementioned oil refinery). I'm not sure a filling station would qualify as near immersion in hostile gases. In fact, I would be more concerned with cell phone use near those propane tanks cages in front of the grocery store. The mistreatment those things undergo is bound to cause leaks.

3rd party products (discount cell phone batteries, those metal card antenna extenders) are known to cause fires and on occassion explosion due to improper construction. A fire or explosion near a gas pump will be dangerous (like another poster mentioned with the dink somking the cigarette). But a normal cell phone being used in the manner it was intended is simply not dangerous enough to make a law about it.

And finally, maybe historical research can help answer our question. I'm going to check the NTSB. I don't think there's a proven case of cell phones causing a fire at a gas station.
Posted by Michael  in  Maryland  on  Thu Mar 10, 2005  at  08:09 AM
Snopes goes over the science of this one fairly well. Thanks, Alex, for mentioning this most recent mutation of the stupidity. I've written the senator a polite letter suggesting she check her facts. Judging from the press release on her own website, her basis for it was only the warning stickers at the gas stations.

If I thought there should be a law about any warning sticker I've ever seen, I'd never have a slow day again.
Posted by cvirtue  on  Thu Mar 10, 2005  at  09:42 AM
engineer wrote "Mythbusters is highly entertaining but they aren't scientists - they are SFX guys. Don't assume everything you see on TV is true wink"

It may just be a TV show, but they did prove that even going WAY beyond reasonable scenarios they still couldnt get a cell phone to cause an open spark. The only possible way something like that could MAYBE occur is with a cheapo counterfeit battery, and as far as I know there is already plenty of legislation about that.

That being said......
The other big issue is that the reason a Static Discharge is SOO much more dangerous than a "sparky cell" is the location of the spark.
I would think most people who are filling their tank and talking on the phone would have the phone in one hand and the pump in the other. That puts the primary source of ignition (the phone) a couple feet away from the primary vapor source. (the pump nozzle/tank opening) However if you are carry a static charge, the worst case scenario could be that the discharge would come out of same hand that you are controlling the pump nozzle with. That puts the spark and vapor only inches away.

The only reason I would think refineries or compressor stations might ban cell phones is because your entire body might be surrounded in a pool of flamable vapor, which is not the same as the 2-3 feet of seperation at a gas pump. Even then you would still probably need a bum battery to cause a problem.
Posted by alteregogi  on  Thu Mar 10, 2005  at  09:42 AM
As far as I can gather, the reason that gas stations and oil refineries don't want cell phones in use is the same reason why demolitions experts and hospitals don't want them around. Cell phone signals can screw with the electronics around them. They can cause heart monitors to read false, can cause remote explosives to go off prematurely, and they can cause the pump to read false.

Gas stations don't want cell phones to be used because they might interfere with their profits.
Posted by tiker_tape  in  Ontario  on  Thu Mar 10, 2005  at  10:01 AM
Even some hospitals are lessening their restrictions now (to not in ICU, everywhere else is ok). I've heard too, that the FCC is going to be getting rid of the restrictions on cellphone use during air flights. Goes to show there is no real basis in fact as to the "dangers".
Posted by winona  on  Thu Mar 10, 2005  at  10:44 AM
There is a very real danger to DRIVING with a cell phone (and not really for the loss of physical dexterity of only having one hand but the result of mentally being inattentive). There are not many places where driving with a cell phone is illegal and even fewer places where that ban is enforced.

My guess is that most state legislators use cell phones while driving.
Posted by Floormaster Squeeze  on  Thu Mar 10, 2005  at  01:17 PM
If we follow Senator Stillman's logic to its logical conclusion ("We need to impose fines on anyone not abiding by privately posted warning signs!") then we should probably start ticketing people for walking on recently-mopped floors next to those yellow collapsable triangle thingies.
~ ~ ~
Posted by UsuallyDark  in  Los Angeles  on  Thu Mar 10, 2005  at  03:49 PM
It wasn't just Mythbusters (and I saw the episode) but a couple of other debunker shows as well. Can't remember the names of the shows, I got rid of cable over a year ago, but the evidence supporting the innocence of cell phones was very sound as far as I could tell. I've heard of only one possible gas station fire blamed on a cell phone, and the fire chief interviewed for the report said that all other causes had been eliminated; I think it was static myself, been around airplanes and I know how dangerous static can be.
Posted by Christopher Cole  in  Tucson, AZ  on  Thu Mar 10, 2005  at  04:38 PM
It isn't the cell phone. it's the lithium battery in the cell phone that requires a regulating circiut to keep it from combusting in the first place, it the circuit malfunctions, the cellphone can catch fire. This is extremely rare, but has happened and been covered in the news. I work at a battery company and this is somewhat of an issue.
Posted by sbnature  on  Thu Mar 10, 2005  at  06:23 PM
There have been two reported instances of fires caused by mobile phones in recent years in Australia. I never really followed the reports that closely. Had something to do with screens that light up on the phone. Something about the amount of electricity that it takes to do that...I dunno. I don't think it's that much of a danger personally. Morons who talk on the phone while driving are more of a danger.
Posted by Nettie  in  Perth, Western Australia  on  Thu Mar 10, 2005  at  11:40 PM
'Engineer' is right about Intrinsically Safe electronics in the oil & gas industry but the rules aren't always enforced. I just returned from working on an oil drilling rig in northern Alberta. We use a regular Wireless Access Point for our network just like the one many people use in their homes. I quite often make cell phone calls on the rig to get information about various data sensors. I asked permission from the Rig Manager and he okayed it. He prefered that I got the thing working rather than have down time. Workers on the rig carry two-way radios to keep in contact. They often change batteries while on the rig. That would seem to be potential spark generator, but there does not appear to be a rule about it. So much for concern about explosion.
The greatest danger in most facilities is highly toxic hydrogen sulfide gas which is also very explosive. But everyone on the rig will be dead long before it becomes an explosion hazard.
Two months ago another rig hit a high pressure gas pocket while drilling. The flames shot over 200 ft in the air. The derrick melted in seconds. Grapefruit-sized rocks rained down on trailers and trucks. A worker on the derrick fell 150 ft to his death. These are the things I worry about, not cell phones.
Posted by Captain Al  in  Vancouver Island, Canada  on  Fri Mar 11, 2005  at  12:21 AM
Ranks right up there with the Virginia droopy drawers legislation from a couple months ago...

And a related question: Can anyone explain the highway road sign: "Blasting ahead, turn off all cell phones and two way pagers"?
Posted by Karen  in  Pawtucket RI  on  Fri Mar 11, 2005  at  04:15 AM
Karen asked above: "And a related question: Can anyone explain the highway road sign: "Blasting ahead, turn off all cell phones and two way pagers"?"

The reason is that the demolitions experts use remote operated explosives. Apparently a stray cell phone or pager signal can set the explosions off prematurely. I have no clue how true this is, but that's the claim.
Posted by tiker_tape  in  Ontario  on  Fri Mar 11, 2005  at  07:59 AM
It has nothing to do with profits. That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. If the electronics were prone to that, just having the phone turned on in the car could cause that, since cell phones repeatedly ping for a signal tower. If that were an issue, you'd have to turn off your phone completely -- like in hospitals or airplanes.

Hospitals are becoming more open about that. My former wife keeps hers on her at work, though she doesn't take it to patient rooms. She leaves it at the station.
Posted by Bill B.  on  Fri Mar 11, 2005  at  10:19 AM
"Hospitals are becoming more open about that. My former wife keeps hers on her at work, though she doesn't take it to patient rooms. She leaves it at the station."

Out of politeness or as a safty measure?
Posted by Katey  on  Fri Mar 11, 2005  at  05:15 PM
Possible but unproven? - an academic view -;/docs/MobilePhoneA.pdf
Posted by midlandsea  on  Fri Mar 11, 2005  at  06:35 PM
Perhaps the proposal is not to prevent fires/explosions but rather to prevent careless people from spilling gasoline.
Posted by Jared  on  Sat Mar 12, 2005  at  02:46 PM
THis is acutaly true being that gas evaporates a a a very fast pace the fume could come in contack with the elsctricity in pagers or phones. this i why your supposed to turn the car totaly off when filling you tank up.
Posted by Evildream  on  Sun Mar 13, 2005  at  09:08 AM
I agree, and while we're at it, we should be allowed to smoke while pumping gas...


Posted by Laser Potato  on  Mon Mar 14, 2005  at  08:53 AM
Evildream, please learn how to type. From the little intelligible bits of that I have ascertained that you are infact a moron.

Also, I don't if anyone here is from Southeastern CT but the New London Day printed an article on this where they state:

"There are documented cases of people across the country who have become engulfed in flames at gas pumps because the sparks from static electricity ignited gas vapors while they were fueling their cars. That's why there are signs at gas pumps warning motorists of the danger. And it illustrates why using a cell phone, which could give off an electric discharge, and pumping gas, is not a good idea."

I heart fact checking. Mind you The Day didn't have too much credibility to begin with but this is just silly.
Posted by Nehllah  on  Mon Mar 14, 2005  at  11:41 AM
I just see a re-run on Mythbusters on this same myth. They proved it cant happen. Instead they said it is most likely caused by static from people (mostly women) going in and out of their cars during the gassing process.
Posted by Arlene  in  US  on  Tue Mar 15, 2005  at  12:16 PM
If you believe that cell phones can cause fires at gas stations then I guess you better look out for the boogyman.
Posted by Gary  in  Bath,Maine  on  Sun Apr 03, 2005  at  12:32 PM
The Petroleum Equipment Institute, the organization representing makers of gas pumps, and the American Petroleum Institute, both state that the cause of fires at gas stations is static electricity and NOT cell phones. The PEI investigated hundreds of reports of fires at gas pumps and none of them were caused by cell phones.
Posted by wcmcca  on  Sat Jul 09, 2005  at  09:18 AM
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