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    Fuel Bill Brings Relief

    Minnesota measure seeks to curb gasoline drive-offs.

    Beginning Aug. 1 Minnesota retailers can begin fighting back in the battle to prevent fuel drive-offs.

    Minnesota's new drive-off law allows retailers to record the license plates of motorists stealing gas, send the vehicle's registered owner a bill and tack on a $20 service charge. If you don't pay the bill within 30 days, you are likely to receive another notice with a $100 civil penalty added, according to the St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press.

    The law, which passed the state legislature with no difficulty, is designed to help convenience store retailers recoup some of their losses, which the National Association of Convenience Stores estimates at $3,000 per station a year.

    But it sounds strangely similar to a red-light camera bill that failed in the State House last year. That bill would have allowed municipalities to install cameras at signal-controlled intersections to record the license plates of vehicles that blow through red lights and then ticket the owner by mail.

    Although the drive-off law doesn't specify the use of cameras to document illegal behavior, Minnesota Service Station Association officials say photographic evidence would be the primary source of proof, though eyewitness testimony from the motor-fuel retailer in an affidavit is good enough. For security reasons, many stations already have cameras recording transactions around on their grounds, the report said.

    Both the drive-off law and the failed red-light camera bill hold the vehicle's owner liable, regardless of who commits the infraction, as is the case with parking violations. Lawmakers, however, balked at holding a vehicle's owner responsible for red-light running when that person may not have been behind the wheel.

    Since gas prices have leveled off, station owners hope not to use the law very often. But, they said, it is needed to combat gas theft, with the losses being passed on to paying consumers. NACS says drive-offs cost service stations $272 million in 2000.

    Other solutions included forcing store owners to make customers prepay for fuel, but that's deemed too hard on customers. "It's very intrusive in the business. For less than 1 percent of the customer base, you're making them all jump through these hoops," said Greg Headrick, executive director of the Minnesota Service Station Association.

    An association survey indicates the frequency of drive-offs in 2000 jumped 153 percent over 1998. About 2.7 billion gallons of gasoline are sold annually in Minnesota, the report said.

    Although gas theft is a misdemeanor in Minnesota punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine, the new law will make it easier on store owners who had to rely on busy police to track down offenders.

    So far, retailers are cautiously optimistic. "What's crazy is, [drive-off offenders] come back," said Scott Olson, owner of Parkway Amoco in St. Paul, which loses between $200 to $300 a month in drive-offs. "You steal something from the store, it's robbery. Gas theft is not viewed the same. That's why they continue to do it ? because nothing's done to stop it. Hopefully, this will work."

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