Gas pump rage

With gasoline prices soaring, gas-station owners are reporting a spate of rip-offs, drive-offs and pump rage.

High prices aren’t the fault of station owners, but psychiatrists say people are venting pent-up anger at the first target they see.

Los Angeles psychiatrist Robert Butterworth says he understands what drivers are feeling because he’s flushed with anger from filling up his Lincoln Town Car in California, where gasoline is well over $3.

“I’ve had to take a few deep breaths, shake my fist in the air, and attempt to think positive thoughts,” he said. Butterworth said some station owners in California have resorted to posting literature at gas pumps telling customers that they are not at fault.

Butterworth predicted that political incumbents will feel the backlash from gas-price increases this fall, especially from voters shaken by the end of the real-estate boom and paychecks that aren’t keeping up with inflation.

For Americans already squeezed economically, gas-price increases “have been the equivalent of the one-two punch,” Butterworth said, and the prices posted at gas stations serve as advertising billboards reminding people daily of why they are depressed and feeling economically pinched.

Butterworth recalled that a similar simmering uproar over gasoline prices and shortages was one of the reasons Jimmy Carter lost the White House in 1980.

Jeff Leonard, of the National Association of Convenience Stores, said there have been increased incidents of people driving away from pumps without paying, prompting more stations to adopt pay-before-you-pump policies. Police in Fond du Lac, Wis., report that drive-away larcenies have doubled this year, while Kansas City, Mo., lawmakers are considering ordinances requiring prepayment at gas stations because of the safety dangers of fleeing cars peeling off into traffic.

“Gas theft is a problem every time gasoline prices increase,” Leonard said.

He said figures haven’t yet been compiled for 2005, but from anecdotal evidence, he expects the dollar loss from gas theft will be “significantly higher” than the $237 million recorded in 2004. Of the 140,000 convenience stores across the nation, about 112,000 sell gas.

“They are hearing from their customers,” Leonard said. About 60 percent of convenience stores sell gas branded by the five large oil companies, and Leonard said some drivers feel they are getting back at the oil companies by driving away without paying. But Leonard noted that the companies don’t own convenience stores, and it’s the small owners who have to make up the losses.

Pay-before-you-pump policies also result in more credit-card purchases, which cut into store profits because of fees charged by credit-card companies for processing transactions. Stores typically make less than 1 cent-a-gallon profit on gasoline sales, he said, and stores prefer the cash transactions.

“There’s a lot of frustration at the pumps _ on both sides,” he said.

There has been a smattering of violence. A station owner was killed last year when he was run over by a sport utility vehicle as he tried to stop the driver from leaving a Fort Payne, Ala., station without paying for $52 worth of gasoline.

John Rooney, a professor of psychology at La Salle University in Philadelphia, said the uncertainty about gasoline prices leads to feelings of lack of control, and he also expects fallout for politicians this fall.

“The frustration people are feeling with increasing gas prices and their lack of control over them leads to a search for someone to blame,” he said.

Bush administration officials invited voters to trust them with government. “They have said, ‘Trust us and we will take care of you.’ People are losing this trust,” he said.

(Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)