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Rise in gas drive-offs prompts action by association

by Paul Darst

STAFF WRITER

When motorists pump gas, they see signs that show the price per gallon, ones that remind them to shut off their engines and others advertising specials inside the store.

Starting soon, some also will see stickers touting a new state law that could result in suspended drivers' licenses for those who drive off without paying.

The 400 members of the West Virginia Oil Marketers and Grocers Association is selling the stickers warning: "Pay for your gas, or lose your driver's license."

Although drive-offs have posed a problem for gas retailers for years, the problem has gotten worse this spring, said Janet Vineyard, executive director of the association.

"When this was passed in January, it was an issue, but not a huge one," she said. "Now with the price of gas up, it is a very big problem."

This year's Legislature passed Senate Bill 389, which changed the way the state will deal with those who drive off without paying.

In the past, doing so was a larceny punishable by up to a $2,500 fine, Vineyard said.

Since the revised law took effect, the penalty for a first-time offense is the same. But for a second offense, the law provides up to a six-month suspension of a driver's license. The penalty for a third offense is a one-year suspension.

The association hopes the tougher penalties will deter gas thefts, Vineyard said.

"This is really good for everybody," she said.

"If someone drives off without paying, that can really hurt small (retailers). They have to make up for it somehow, usually by raising prices."

Association members include everything from "mom and pop" stores, to larger chains with nearly 100 locations throughout the state, she said.

In addition to lobbying for tougher penalties, association members and other stores have taken measures to prevent gas thefts, Vineyard said. Cameras, undercover employees and other measures help police nab those who fill up and flee.

Although drive-offs are a problem everywhere in the state, it is worse in certain areas, Vineyard said.

"It's worse for stores along the interstates or on the border," she said.

Catching thieves requires help from local police, she said. But coverage varies from place to place.

"A lot depends on how much law enforcement can help," she said. "In a lot of areas, they have their plates full and can't help as much."

Not everyone who drives off without paying is a criminal. Some just forget to pay.

"We're not going after those people," she said.

Staff writer Paul Darst can be reached at 626-1404.

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