Idling Engines Are the Devil’s Workshop

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In a move certain to irritate uncompromising libertarians, oil executives, and muscle-car enthusiasts, New York City has made it illegal to let your vehicle engine idle for more than a minute in a school zone. With the new ordinance, the city joins several other cities and states in going after idling engines as a pollution source and health hazard.

Minneapolis, the home of Utne Reader‘s editorial offices, is among the enlightened cities with recently passed or amended anti-idling ordinances on the books. The city even has a printable mock ticket/informational brochure on its website that vigilant citizens can use to remind violators of the law.

How bad is idling, and how unnecessary is it? Let us count the ways:

It spews greenhouse gases. In Sierra magazine’s March-April issue, advice peddler Mr. Green fields a question about the global-warming impact of that American institution, the drive-through. Crunching the numbers, Mr. Green concludes that idling cars and trucks emit about 58 million tons of carbon dioxide each year, and U.S. fast-food drive-throughs cause customers to burn an extra 50 million gallons of gas annually. At Sustainablog, Robin Shreves notes that you don’t even have to give up drive-throughs to green up your act: Just shut off your engine when you’re in line at the bank or the burger joint.

It’s a health threat. As Minneapolis’ ticket/brochure points out, “Exhaust is hazardous to human health, especially children’s; studies have linked air pollution to increased rates of cancer, heart and lung disease, asthma and allergies.” If you have any doubts, go suck on a tailpipe. The Environmental Defense Fund notes that children, the elderly and those with asthma and other chronic health problems are especially vulnerable to the health dangers of exhaust.

Your car doesn’t need it. If you think you need to warm up your car before driving to avoid mechanical problems, think again. Slate‘s own advice columnist, the Green Lantern, tackled several engine-idling myths last May and concluded that for modern fuel-injected engines, there’s simply no good mechanical reason to warm up a car for more than 30 seconds. (For those who see Car Talk‘s Click and Clack as the final word on auto advice, they concur.) As a Minnesotan, I’ll add just one caveat to the discussion: When it’s really cold–and I’m talking near or below zero–make sure your defroster is warm enough to clear the windshield before traveling at highway speed, or the glass might cloud up.

You don’t need it. Now that you know your mechanical explanation doesn’t cut it, you might have to address a touchier subject: your personal comfort. In cold weather, I can attest that many Minnesotans like to get their automobile microclimate nice ‘n’ toasty before climbing inside, so as not to shock their gentle derrieres. I have several neighbors who dash out to their cars 10, 20, even 30 (!) minutes before actually departing for work to warm up their vehicles. (One guy even turns his headlights on for extra measure.) I’m a daily, year-round bike commuter who avoids using my personal virtue as a cudgel, but I’ve got to tell you, people: Toughen up or find a less wasteful way to warm your bum, whether it’s long johns or a thermal cushion. That’s me out there on the street, huffing your unoccupied car’s exhaust cloud as I ride past. Know how I warm up my vehicle? I get on and start pedaling. Neighbors, your tickets are on their way!

Sources: City of MinneapolisSierraSustainablogEnvironmental Defense FundSlateCar Talk

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