Yesterday's news story about widespread favoritism at area gasoline pumps was ominous.
For weeks, District Liners have been complaining to me about service stations. One letter, from a 72-year-old woman, was typical. It said:
"Since my husband died, I have lived alone and have not been a burden to anybody. Although I am not well, I have learned to cope. I drive an old auto that gets me to the supermarket and back, and yesterday I waited in line for 45 minutes to buy gas for it.
"When I finally got to the pumps, I was turned away. The man said he wasn't selling to the general public, just to his regular customers. What could I do? I had to leave and find another line."
As letters of this kind continued to arrive, I began talking to people at the Epartment of Energy. I learned that filling stations all over our area are breaking the law. And I began to realize that customers are as much to blame as station operators. Customers are pressuring dealers to break the law. Tens of thousands of motorists are resorting to every trick in the book to get favored treatment.
Trying to enforce the gasoline regulations is like trying to enforce Prohibition. Strict enforcement is impossble without millions of policemen.
A few days ago, The Washington Post's Metro editors assigned 12 reporters to find out at first hand what is going on at the pumps. Staff writer Molly Sinclair's report on what they learned appeared on the Metro page yesterday, and it was not happy reading. Molly spelled out details that made it clear the situation is worse than I thought.
Jay Thompson, executive assistant to DOE's assistant administrator for enforcement had informed me that ever since 1974, filling station operators have been aware that it is illegal for any supplier to engage in discriminatory practices in selling gasoline. Operators also know that it is illegal to change "any previous business practice." They can't suddenly decide they will sell only to regular customers, or to those who also buy repair services.
Those who violate these regulations are subject to a fine of $2,500. Willful violations can result in criminal charges that carry a fine of $10,000 plus a year in jail.
Yet the pressure put on station operators by customers has been so great that the law is broken thousands of times every day.
Until yesterday, I was of the opinion that The Post's editorial opposition to rationing gasoline by coupon was ill-advised. It seemed to me that the only fair way to deal with the widespread me-first attitude of auto owners was for the government to allocate according to need -- the kind of system we had during World War II.
However I received a letter yesterday that indicates I am wrong about rationing. The letter was from C.C Van Vechten and says:
"I ran the statistics for gasoline rationing for OPA national hq in World War II, so I suspect I know more aout it than almost one you will find.
"My serious conviction is that rationing would be an unmitigated disaster for the present situation.
"If the only use for gasoline were to run highway vehicles, it might be made to work at a price. But off-highway uses present a problem that cannot either be controlled or ignored.
"Farmers will get what they say they need and will use, sell or give away enough to break the system.
"Then there is 'naphtha,' an ill-defined mixture of hydrocarbons which will run cars and is needed in a very great variety of industrial uses. Putting it under rationing would be a monstrous headache. Not doing so would open a loophole which Amoco demonstrated in WWII to make a farce of controls. They put it in pumps at gas stations."
Without the "psychological support" that a war provides, Van Vechten says rationing is not the answer. And that appears to leave us with little choice. Our present system isn't working because too many people want to be first in the gas lines. Coupon rationing won't work for the reasons The Post and Van Vechten have cited.
So we appear to be left with only one choice: alternative fuels on which automobiles will operate satisfactorily.