As temperatures have dropped the past few weeks, I’ve seen more of one of my big environmental pet peeves – car idling. Idling happens all year round but it becomes even more common in cold weather and more noticeable, as we can literally see the pollution billowing from the tailpipes of idling cars.
In recent weeks I’ve seen cab drivers idling between runs, parents idling at school drop off and pick up points, and passengers idling in store parking lots. I’ve seen empty cars idling outside schools and stores. Soon we’ll begin seeing plumes of exhaust throughout residential areas as empty cars idle in driveways on cold, frosty mornings.
Those plumes of exhaust have a significant impact on our air quality, health, and global warming. Driving in general is very polluting, of course. According to Natural Resources Canada, the transportation sector is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country, producing 12% of Canada’s total emissions. These vehicle emissions contribute not only to global warming, but also to more immediate health problems, including asthma, lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that of cancers that are linked to outdoor air pollution, as many as half can be attributed to vehicle emissions.
Idling has roughly double the environmental impact of driving. It uses about two times as much gas and causes your car to emit almost twice the toxins it does when the car is moving. In winter the combined idling of cars in Canada can equal more than 75 million minutes a day. That idling burns about 1.5 million litres of fuel and emits 3.6 million kg of CO2 without moving people or goods anywhere.
So why do people idle? Surely some of these drivers just don’t care about the extra pollution they’re unnecessarily adding to our air, but most probably aren’t aware of the environmental impacts of idling. Some believe a cold car needs to warm up before moving, and that it causes less wear and tear on the car’s engine to idle for a few minutes than to turn it off and on again in a short period. Most probably just want to stay warm in the winter or cool in the summer, and many use remote starters to warm the car up enough to scrape ice or defrost windows. But I have to wonder if some (particularly the ones who idle when the weather is mild) don’t realize that the engine doesn’t have to be running for the radio to work.
Modern car engines do not need to warm up before driving – driving itself is the most effective way to warm up an engine on cold days. But you can’t drive away immediately if you can’t see out of your ice covered windows. So many Canadians have invested hundreds of dollars in remote car starters. They invest hundreds more dollars in the fuel that burns up as the car just sits there, warming up very slowly and inefficiently. A block heater, plugged into a timer that will turn it on no more than two hours before you need to leave, is a much more economical and eco-friendly choice than a remote starter. The heater warms the engine block and lubricants enough to make starting the car very easy. You may still need to idle a few minutes while you scrape some ice or run the defroster enough to see out the windows, but because the block heater has already warmed the engine, the heater and defroster will begin working almost immediately. You’ll be out of your driveway with significantly less idling than if you had started a cold engine, by hand or with a remote starter.
There is a common myth that it is kinder to your engine to let it run for a few minutes while stopped than to turn it off and on repeatedly. Sources I’ve consulted vary on their recommendations regarding this. Many say that any time a car will be stopped for more than ten seconds (except in traffic) it is worthwhile to turn the car off, as restarting the engine uses less fuel than ten seconds of idling. But this only accounts for fuel usage, not engine wear. So some sources have recommended 30 or 60 seconds as the point at which it becomes better to turn the engine off. Any extra wear on the engine is unlikely to be significant – adding perhaps $10 per year to the cost of operating the vehicle, a cost which would be offset several times over by the fuel savings of not idling.
For the people who just want to stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer while sitting in their vehicles, it’s hopefully a matter of education. If they know how harmful idling is, and more importantly, care, perhaps they will decide to get out of the car and go inside rather than waiting in the parking lot for someone. Perhaps they’ll dress warmly enough in winter so that sitting a few minutes in an already warmed car won’t be uncomfortable. Perhaps they’ll go inside rather than use a drive-thru. Perhaps they’ll decide to eat lunch at home, at the office, or inside a restaurant rather than while idling in the car in a parking lot. (This is something I had never seen before moving to Fredericton, but go to any park at lunchtime, year round, and you’ll find people eating lunch in their vehicles, enjoying the view of “nature” while emitting toxins into it.)
Lest anyone think I am a holier-than-thou, judgmental environmental purist, let me admit to some of my eco-faults. I indulge in long, hot baths. My bike goes into storage as soon as the air is cold enough to chap my face, and most errands are then done by car. I don’t idle, but I do drive a lot more than I really have to. I’m not nearly organized enough to do my grocery shopping in one trip per week, so I make many short driving trips. When my children were babies I spent a lot of time driving around town aimlessly, trying desperately to get them to sleep. And we take long trips in a not particularly fuel efficient mini-van, and fly at least once a year.
A lot of ways we can be good (or at least less bad) to the environment take a fair amount of effort and sometimes discomfort. But remembering not to idle is such an easy way to lessen our environmental impact with only a modicum of discomfort. It takes a lot less work or planning than line drying laundry, cloth diapering, composting, gardening, or avoiding driving all together.
If you’d like to spread the word about idling, you can find a “turn it off flyer” at the BC Sierra Club website that can be printed and cut into strips roughly the size of a bookmark to hand out (in a very non-confrontational way, hopefully) to idling drivers, or to place under windshield wipers of cars left idling and driverless.