Your call is important to me

You’re not supposed to use a mobile phone while filling up with petrol.  Everyone is dimly aware of this rule, though that doesn’t deter the occasional blighter from coming along and flagrantly violating it.  This happened recently.  I got on the tannoy to advise the bloke of my disapproval.  In honesty, I like doing this.  It makes me feel like the voice of Kitano in ‘Battle Royale’.  I might see if I can figure out a way to play ‘The Beautiful Blue Danube’ alongside every announcement.

His girlfriend paid.  She saw the funny side, which is always a relief.  “You know,” she confided.  “That isn’t actually true.  They proved it on a show on BBC2, with Richard Hammond.”

Richard Hammond?  Eh?  I’m not sure I hold this person’s testimony in high regard, when it comes to this sort of thing. The gall of the man strikes me as impressive.  I can’t think of anyone less suitable to dispense health and safety advice than a man most famous for almost killing himself after ignoring health and safety advice.  It’s like Edward Scissorhands giving guitar lessons.  And yet, apparantly, he has.

Well, regardless of what Richard Hammond thinks, this rule is in place.  Occasionally it is enforced.  When this happens, reaction comes in a wide range of flavours:  from indignation to an almost paranoid compliance.

To the former extreme, the only proper response must be to feign incomprehension; they aren’t going to convince me of the importance of their call, and I would rather they didn’t try. It such situations, understanding why people are annoyed – or at least, appearing to understand why people are annoyed – is undesirable.  It makes them more likely to try to convey their annoyance. Which is, well, annoying.

Incidentally, feigning incomprehension is an important life-skill.  Do it often enough and people become unsure whether or not you understand anything they say; which will enable you to safely ignore everything you’re told on whatever subject you don’t fancy listening to, since no-one will be able to tell the difference.  This is a great for people with short attention spans, like me.  It enables you to turn your brain off entirely during stressful conversations, and instead think of other, more pleasant things: the fluffiness of clouds, for example, or the truth tables of various logical gateways, or the delicious delicious taste of strawberry ice-cream.

Man, ice-cream tastes good.

Anyway, these angry people are the exception.  By and large, everyone complies with the no-mobiles rule, so if it is a myth, it has been well and truly bought into.  Occasionally this compliance goes a stage further, and turns to actual enthusiasm; strange McCarthyite types will approach me, with information on convert telecommunications taking place.

“Did you see that man?” they hiss, while cowering behind the racks of pick and mix as though the forecourt might at any moment turn into a scene from ‘The Hurt Locker’.  “The man on his mobile phone!?  Has he no regard for our safety?  I don’t want to die!  DO YOU WANT TO DIE!?”

To at least one of those questions, incidentally, the answer is no.

Look, I don’t know that it’s impossible for a mobile phone to provide a source of ignition; I only know that it’s perishing unlikely.  I can’t find a single documented example of a fire being caused by phone use.  That doesn’t stop every petrol station in the land plastering signs prohibiting them from the forecourt.

It’s nice that there’s at least one period of waiting where compulsively checking your phone is banned, no matter how dubious stated rationale behind such a ban.  There are some points in life that should really command your full attention; dispensing extremely flammable liquid is probably one of them.

The far greater danger is the one posed by static discharge (I am assuming this is the conclusion Richard Hammond arrived at, though I haven’t watched his show.)   If you’ve ever gotten out of a car and shocked yourself on the door, then you know what I’m talking about.  Imagine that, but on the handle of the pump while it’s being flooded with petroleum vapour.  This is apparently more likely in hot and dry conditions.  In Dubai or Nevada, it’s probably a concern; Kidderminster, not so much.

So really, this safety concern is misplaced; instead of mobile-phone prohibition, they should have a big copper pole sticking out beside the pump so that people can ground themselves (though I expect such a device would probably be nicked within 24 hours of installation.)

According to Mythbusters, women are more likely to suffer from this than men, because they’re more likely to get in and out of their cars while refilling (which is what generates a static charge, through friction or something).  And they’re more likely to wear static-friendly material like nylon or wool.  Sorry, female readers: I’ve just added spontaneously fireball-generation to my list of grievances toward your gender.  Hey, don’t blame me; blame statistics.

Here’s a video demonstration of this effect at work.  The eventual fire is pretty considerable, though you have to sit through a long period of inaudible mumbling to get to it.

From what I can discern, the advice runs thus: should your petrol nozzle burst into flame, you should refrain from yanking the thing out of your tank.  While that advice is probably sound, I’d submit that that’s far easier said than it is done.  I think a more likely response would involve a great deal more running and screaming.  If you can remain level headed enough to not recoil in terror when a fireball unexpectedly erupts from your fingers, you are a colder person than I.  I’d suggest pursuing a career in the military, or in extreme barbeque cookery.

Until next week.

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