Idling: Why Do We Do It?

no idlingA recently passed New York City law cuts down the acceptable limit of vehicle idling time in school zones from 3 minutes to 1 minute. According to an AP report, the law also gives additional city agencies the ability to issue violations and creates a way for officials to track those violations.

Idling in school zones is not a city problem, only. Take a look at any suburban grammar school, like the one my sons attend, and you’ll see an after school mess of idling cars and school buses. What does this say about our culture?

  • We aren’t concerned about the waste of our natural resources?
  • We’ve got money to burn in our gas tanks?
  • We don’t care about the pollution we’re creating, even when it’s harming our children?
  • We’re too darn lazy to turn our car engines off?

Yep, all of the above.

It’s not just around schools. We’ve got drive-thru banks, fast food restaurants, coffee shops, pharmacies, beer distributors and even dry cleaners. We don’t like to get out of our cars, let alone turn off their engines. The whole ridiculousness of how much idling we do hit me last spring, and I wrote a post about it on my personal blog, A Little Greener Every Day. One of my readers, who is from Scotland, responded with this:

You have drive-thru banks???
No, really, you have drive-thru banks???
My flabber has been gasted!

Apparently, some cultures don’t find it unreasonable to actually park the car, turn it off, and get out. In our culture, it’s all about convenience. That’s why we idle our vehicles. We think it’s more convenient to let them idle, and darn it, we work hard and we deserve convenience.

Now, I want you to think long and hard about this. How inconvenient is it, really, for you to turn your car off and then back on again? It’s what? A turn of a key? A push of a button?

I’m not saying you even have to get out of the car. If you’re in the drive-thru, just turn the engine off. Believe me, I am not going to begrudge a mom with three kids securely strapped in their car seats her ability to stay in the car to grab a cup of coffee or a senior citizen who has trouble walking the ability to go through the bank drive-thru.

I know if you’re my age or older (maybe even a little younger) that when you learned to drive your dad told  you it takes more gas to turn the engine on and off than it does for the car to idle for a minute or two. He wasn’t lying to you, but technology has changed. That may have been true of the 1963 Chevy Impala that I learned to drive in, but that’s not the case with today’s cars.

You are wasting gas when you idle, even for one minute. You are creating pollution. You are spewing money out the exhuast pipe. You are sending the message that convenience is more important than conservation.

Let’s not wait for more laws like the one in New York City to have to get passed before we do something as simple as turning off our engines. Let’s just do it. It’s so simple. It’s really not inconvenient at all. And before long, maybe we’ll be asking, “Remember when we all used to idle our cars, why did we do that?”

Image credit: TheTruthAbout under creative commons license

  1. Diana

    Idling isn’t a new problem. Parking spots are only a few feet away from the curb and people refuse to park their cars and walk to their kids or have their kids walk to them. While parents may complain that it’s dangerous to walk to parking spots, the truth is that if everyone did we would be more aware and be more careful.

  2. Bobby B.

    “I know if you’re my age or older (maybe even a little younger) that when you learned to drive your dad told you it takes more gas to turn the engine on and off than it does for the car to idle for a minute or two. He wasn’t lying to you, but technology has changed. That may have been true of the 1963 Chevy Impala that I learned to drive in, but that’s not the case with today’s cars.”

    That statement is not entirely true. Whilst your 1963 Chevy may have been a low-tech, slow-starting grinder, starting a modern automobile still requires more fuel than idling for a few minutes.

    First, all engines prime (add excess fuel) and choke (restrict combustion airflow) when starting. These two steps are still manual operations on most gasoline driven lawn mowers and weed whackers. Modern automobiles may have an ECM (engine control module) to clean up emissions, but priming and choking remain necessary to begin the combustion process in every internal combustion engine on the planet. Priming and choking yield incomplete combustion and the expulsion of unburned fuel from the exhaust (i.e. emissions).

    Second, an engine that has been placed in the off position long enough to cool needs more priming and choking than a warm engine to return to its optimal operating temperature. Today’s cars do warm up faster than your old clunker thanks to the EGR (exhaust gas return) valve. This valve recycles a portion of the warm exhaust gas back into the combustion chamber to assist the engine in reaching its optimal operating temperature faster. The trade off is that exhaust gas has less oxygen than fresh air to support the combustion process, so the cold engine experiences a less efficient (incomplete) burn until the engine warms and the EGR valve closes. This is part of the reason why one smells more exhaust fumes when starting a car on a cold morning versus starting a freshly stopped one (i.e. emissions).

    Third, the ECM (engine control module) relies heavily on an O2 (oxygen) sensor to regulate the flow of fuel into the combustion chamber. O2 sensors are usually placed just downstream of the exhaust manifold and measure the amount of oxygen in the exhaust gas stream. If the O2 sensor senses too much or too little oxygen in the exhaust gas, the ECM adjusts the flow of fuel until it gets an acceptable reading from the O2 sensor. O2 sensors give the most reliable readings in a hot environment. Therefore, the ECM ignores it until the engine has heated up sufficiently. Even with the best high tech gadgets, a cold engine burns fuel less efficiently than a warm engine (i.e. emissions).

    Fourth, repeatedly cranking an engine puts an enormous strain on the battery and reduces its lifespan. Although this does not appear to be an emissions issue, when a battery experiences an untimely death it requires replacement. A new or remanufactured battery requires considerable energy to produce. This energy probably originates at a large utility company that burns some sort of fuel resulting in some amount of emissions. This scenario does effectively transfer the burden of breathing polluted air to your neighbor who lives closer to the utility, but does nothing to reduce emissions on the whole.

    As with most green initiatives, this idea seems so simple that it just has to be true. Unfortunately, simple answers to complex problems rarely exist, and I have barely scratched the surface of the number of flaws that I could find with this legislation. Should you turn off your car while sitting in a line for an extended period of time? If the wind is not blowing, the answer is definitely yes because exhaust gases can accumulate in a given area and cause acute health problems. Will diligently shutting off your car while sitting in a line significantly reduce emissions and cure people with chronic health problems? Unfortunately, the answer is probably no. Until these kooky laws reach your area, it is best to use good judgment in such situations. When the cold hand of government restricts your freedom do as you are told, observe the effects, and never point out when the intended results fail to come to fruition.

  3. Cara

    I think that for the majority of the population, people simply don’t even think twice about idling or the impact it has on the environment (isn’t that the problem with most environmental issues– people don’t think!). Something like this legislation, along with media attention, will hopefully shed more light on the issue and make more people aware that there is a problem with their auto-pilot behavior. Thanks for calling attention to the story.

  4. Adam Williams

    i wonder if idling may be another consequence of our ever-tense, ever-urgent lifestyles in america.

    thinking of the convenience-factor, waiting lines are troublesome. everything that gets in my way — it’s always about me, me, me, right? — is an inconvenience. and i think that maybe people feel like turning off the engine in a line at the bank means stopping. it means accepting the flow of errand-running has halted — and that’s darned inconvenient.

    if the engine keeps running, it carries the possibility of movement at all times, with just a tap of the accelerator.

    as a group, i don’t think we’re very good about calming the anxious tension in our chests.

    as for the yard sale idlers another commenter mentioned? simply, yowza.

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