Preschool is over at 11:30, but I arrive early to join the others on line waiting to pick up our two-year olds. The day is comfortable, and I turn off my car to wait for the line to move. But something is wrong. The Escalaides and Lexus SUVs in front of me leave their cars on , spewing exhaust into my windows for fifteen minutes. Choking on their fumes, I began to wonder: At what point is it better to leave my car on or turn it off? Is there a point at which it is more efficient to idle? On that day in 2002, my quest to understand idling was born.
Over the next few years, I gathered information, engaged other local officials, and partnered with nearby communities to build momentum to educate everyone about the problems with idling. According to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, vehicle exhaust is the leading source of hazardous air pollution in New Jersey. Based on the successful model developed by Natural Resources Canada’s Office of Energy Effiency, the Idle-Free Zone http://idling.gc.ca/, Millburn Township (15 miles west of New York City), along with other nearby municipalities, has been working to disseminate information about the problems with idling vehicles to schools, municipal officials and citizens.
Idling for more than 10 seconds uses more fuel than restarting the engine. Also, fuel injected vehicles, unlike carbureted engines of old, only need 30 seconds to circulate the oil, and then can be driven slowly to warm up the other parts of the vehicle (transmission, tires, suspension, steering and wheel bearings) besides the engine. Idling can actually damage engines because the engine isn’t at peak operating temperature, and fuel doesn’t undergo complete combustion. Idling also leaves fuel residues that can contaminate engine oil and damage engine parts, while excessive idling can allow water to condense in vehicle’s exhaust, which can be seen after a long light when the car in front advances and water drips from the tailpipe.
Idling is especially hazardous at schools because children breathe at the tailpipe level and intake more air per pound of weight than adults. Breathing polluted air causes asthma, lung problems and allergies. An interesting report by the International Center for Technology Assessment found that exposure to most auto pollutants, including volatile organic compounds and carbon monoxide, is much higher inside vehicles than at the roadside.
In the face of climate change, preventing any of the 19 pounds of carbon dioxide generated by using a gallon of gasoline, or preventing the nitrous oxide produced by catalytic converters, is a good enough reason for me. Ten minutes of idling uses as much fuel as traveling 5 miles. The Canadian idling slogan is “Idling gets you nowhere”, which is true because you get zero miles per gallon.
Sometimes I will catch myself sitting in the car, messing around, at the beginning or end of a trip. After the moment I realize that idling has been happening by my own hand, I am overcome with the guilt of having left my car running. I turn it off with a snap, promise to try to do better, and vow to ride my bike or walk for a trip instead of driving.
We can all reduce our greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate change by remembering to turn off our engines and eliminate unnecessary idling.
For more information about the NJ campaign, please visit www.cleanwateraction.org/idlefreenj.