Drive offs further increase prices to consumers

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 8, 2007

Oil prices jumped above $98 a barrel Wednesday &8212; a record high &8212; translating into local prices at the pump approaching $3 a gallon for unleaded fuel. With crude oil costs expected to inch closer to the $100 mark a barrel, consumers everywhere are feeling the effects of increased gas prices, including the possibility of increased number of gas drive-offs.

Sgt. Tim Williams has spent 20 years with the Demopolis Police Department. In his career in law enforcement, Williams said gas drive-offs are a fairly common occurrence.

When asked if there seemed to be a correlation between the number of gas drive offs and increasing gas prices, Williams said, &8220;We&8217;ll probably see and increase in drive offs as prices get higher.&8221;

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According to Williams, there were six reported gas drive offs in the month of October alone. A look back at the last six months shows a total of 19 reported incidents of gas drive offs in Demopolis. This figure does not necessarily reflect the total number of occurrences of gas drive offs, as all incidents are not reported to law enforcement.

In general, Williams said, he opts not to prosecute such an offender as long as they agree to go back and pay the station what they owe.

Williams went on to say a person who pumps a lesser amount of gas, for example five or six dollars worth, and does not pay probably does so by accident. A person who fills up an entire tank without paying has probably driven off intentionally, he said.

For gas station owners like Rod Langley, these incidents add up over time. Langley has been working in the industry for 13 years, and operates the Shell station in Linden on Highway 43 South and recently opened up another Shell station in Demopolis on U.S. Highway 80.

Langley said in the Linden station, it is common to have 15 gas drive-offs a month. The new station in Demopolis, however, has only had two in the four months since opening.

According to Williams, one way to deter the problem is to require each person to come in for pump authorized or for them pre pay for gasoline.

In practice, according to Langley, this doesn&8217;t always happen, because when pumps are full attendants try to assist customers as quickly as

possible and do not require everyone to come in to have their pump authorized.

Langley has taken a different approach to deterring gas drive offs. Last year he purchased a surveillance system that includes a camera at each pump to track who is pumping and paying and who is not. It is a practice of his to post the pictures of those who do not pay inside his store.

Langley said they are able to find 90 percent of the people who drive off without paying this way. The other 10 percent, he said, the company must absorb the costs because of the low possibility of catching someone once they leave the station.

Prior to his camera system, Langley said it was &8220;almost impossible&8221; to catch the culprits of gas drive-offs.

But the cost of lost funds due to gas drive offs and technology to ensure it doesn&8217;t happen &8212; such as a $15,000 surveillance system &8212; get passed on to the consumer in the way of increased prices.

Although gas drive offs are rarely prosecuted, in Alabama a gas drive off is considered a class A misdemeanor, and requires suspension of license for up to six months on a first offense and up to one year for subsequent offenses.