SIKESTON -- Service stations are required by law to display signs to promote safety at their gas pumps, but often the warnings go unnoticed by motorists.
The Inside Lane co-owner Eric Blackwelder said he sees it all the time -- customers smoking a cigarette or leaving their vehicle running while pumping gas.
And about every one to three or four months, a person may come in and pay, forget and drive off with the nozzle stuck in tank, Blackwelder said.
"Most of those who do it don't do it belligerently, they do it without thinking. They don't use common sense," Blackwelder said.
While the actions may seem harmless, they are a big "no-no" with the Department of Agriculture as such carelessness can cause static electricity at the pump and result in a fire. Safety is especially important this time of year when the weather is cold and dry.
Many of the recent service station fires are traced back to the way in which motorists fuel their vehicles, said John Albert, an investigator with the department's Petroleum, Propane and Anhydrous Ammonia Program.
"In most cases, motorists get out of their cars, place the gasoline nozzle in the fuel tank, begin fueling and get back into their vehicles to keep warm. When the nozzle kicks off, motorists exit their cars, reach for the gas nozzle and create a static spark that ignites the flammable vapors released during fueling," Albert explained.
In 2003, 18 incidents of static fires were reported in the state with 16 of the 18 motorists being women, according to Albert.
"Fortunately, we haven't had any deaths. We've had one serious burn and in most cases, total destruction of the vehicle," Albert said.
Since many incidents go unreported because there is no requirement for them, Albert admitted he usually finds out about them at service station inspections.
However, Blackwelder said the state does a good job of ensuring the pumps are safe for customers.
"With the way, the government intervenes, it's got to be checked over," Blackwelder noted about gas pumps at service stations. "The state's Weights and Measures checks the grounding on it and checks the lines and all that has to pass before you can even open for business."
Then someone like Albert from the state checks the pumps once a month, Blackwelder explained.
Should an emergency situation arise, each pump has an automatic shut off inside the service station, Blackwelder said. The automatic shut offs are required by law, he added. Unfortunately, there's not one specific cause for most of the incidents that occur, Albert pointed out.
"It's a big mystery. We've all been trying to work on that and with each other," Albert said.
The state departments, along with the national Petroleum Equipment Institute, have shared information and looked at brand specific vehicles, dispensers, etc., but can't find a common cause of the fires, except cool, dry conditions. "And it's difficult to prove the ignition source because there's not a lot to look at after the fire has occurred," Albert said.
While there have been no static fires in the area recently -- the closest was at Huck's Convenience Store in Cape Girardeau about a year ago -- Albert said it's best to take preventative measures.
The best prevention is to stop the engine and remain in attendance with nozzle when pumping gas, Albert suggested.
Even though most of the new gas pumps come with warning display signs, Blackwelder said ultimately it's the person fueling who is responsible.
"The sign doesn't keep the person from doing it," Blackwelder said, "but it keeps the owner from being sued because someone wasn't using common sense."