5 Stupid Things We Do at Gas Stations

Auto Insurance, Insurance
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Who among us doesn’t make a mistake now and then? Forget to put the milk carton back in the fridge? Check. Leave your phone at home? Check. Drive off with the gas nozzle still in the car? Wait a minute, what?

Some “my bads” can be downright doozies, leaving us with no place to hide. And it doesn’t get much more public than when you’re at the gas station refueling the car.

Here are five gas station goofs to avoid, with apologies to those for whom this advice hits close to home. One silver lining to our blunders: Car insurance can help pay for some of these mistakes.

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1. Driving off with the gas nozzle still in the car

The sight of a car traveling the highway with a gas nozzle sticking out packs a comedic wallop. And this gaffe happens more often than you might think, according to experts in the insurance and gas station industries. Online, some people confess they’ve done this — and that they’ve driven miles on end before realizing their mistake.

Most of these instances have one thing in common: The driver was distracted while on a cell phone, says Jeff Lenard with the Association for Convenience and Fuel Retailing.

Damage is usually not terribly expensive — about $250 — thanks to hoses designed to detach from the nozzle in these cases, Lenard says. These and other safety mechanisms, he says, ensure that “you’re not going to have a scene like in the movies where the hero leaps right before the fireball.”

More good news: Your auto liability insurance will pay for damage to the pump, hose, or both, says Richard Ward, auto claims director with MetLife Auto and Home. There is no deductible with a liability claim. If there’s damage to your own vehicle as well, comprehensive coverage would pay, minus your deductible amount.

2. Leaving your car running to go inside

You wouldn’t leave your unlocked car running while you shop at the mall, so why do it at the gas station?

Thinking it’ll only take a minute to get a drink or a lottery ticket leads to a false sense of security. Or as Lenard puts it: “Thieves seek out opportunity. It’s an easy way for somebody who wants to acquire a car to do it.”

If your car is stolen and you have comprehensive coverage, your auto insurance policy will come to your rescue. It pays you the value of your vehicle if it’s stolen and not recovered. But comprehensive coverage won’t pay for belongings stolen from your car, such as an iPad, cell phone or laptop. For those items, you can make a claim on your homeowners or renters policy. In any case, you’ll need a police report to make a theft claim.

3. Putting diesel fuel in an unleaded-gas tank

This one might seem tough to pull off, given that diesel pumps are clearly labeled and they’re usually bright green. Also, diesel nozzles usually don’t fit into newer cars with gasoline engines. But again, driver distraction wins out, Lenard says.

Filling your unleaded-fuel car with diesel can cause all sorts of problems. The most immediate one: After you drive off, your car will die a few miles down the road because gasoline engines can’t burn diesel. An auto mechanic will need to drain and clean your fuel system, a messy, lengthy fix that could set you back $1,000 or so. The reverse problem, accidentally filling your diesel tank with unleaded fuel, can cause as much or more damage.

“At MetLife, if a customer makes that mistake, we will cover the remediation/repair under their comprehensive coverage if they have that coverage,” Ward says.

4. Re-entering your vehicle while refueling

This happens more often in the winter: To keep warm, you get back in the car while pumping gas. After all, it’s toasty in there, and what’s the harm, right? But re-entering the car while refueling actually can be a hazard. It can lead to a buildup of static electricity that can trigger a flash fire when you return to the pump, according to the American Petroleum Institute.

The API recommends that you turn off your vehicle — sparks from the engine compartment can also trigger a fire when the motor is running — and avoid re-entering the car while refueling. If you must get back in the car, touch a metal part of the vehicle before reaching for the nozzle. From 1992 to 2010, almost 180 reported incidents appear to be linked to static electric discharge, according to the Petroleum Equipment Institute. A 2010 PEI report about that period found two fire deaths at gas stations that may have been linked to static electricity.

If you unwittingly cause a fire touched off by static electricity, comprehensive coverage would pay for fire damage to your vehicle. If the fire damaged other people’s property, such as someone else’s car, the gas pumps or buildings, and you were found legally liable, your liability insurance would pay for damages up to your policy’s limits, Ward says.

5. Leaving a family member behind at the gas station

It’s the subject of a memorable, almost too-funny-to-be-true scene in the 2006 comedy “Little Miss Sunshine” — but it’s actually happened in real life, too.

Lenard says he heard of someone getting left behind at a gas station in Europe last year, and media outlets have reported on a few similar incidents over the years. Last January, for instance, an Argentine tourist forgot his wife at a gas station in Brazil and didn’t notice this until he was 60 miles down the road. One can only imagine the frosty chill when husband and wife were reunited. If only there were Awkward Conversations Insurance for moments like this.

Some 40 million Americans stop for gas every day, and most of the transactions are uneventful, Lenard says. “But some are less boring than others,” he notes.

Juan Castillo is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: jcastillo@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @JCastilloNerd.