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What simple trick reduces air pollution and saves money? Idle-Free Zones

Most people are aware of the fact that vehicles have a negative impact on the environment through their use of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels release harmful pollutants such as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, effectively contributing to global warming. However, what you might not know is that vehicles produce 12% more emissions when idling than they do while driving.

What exactly is idling? Idling is running your engine while your car isn’t moving. If you are a vehicle owner, then there is a good chance you have been guilty of this practice. After all, driving isn’t always an efficient method of transportation. You might often find yourself hitting every red light or getting stuck in traffic.

In fact, there are many reasons why drivers idle.

Why we idle vehicles

One of the main reasons why drivers idle has to do with weather conditions. If you live in a location that suffers from very cold winters or scorching hot summers, you’ll be familiar with the practice of warming up or cooling down your car. It can often take a number of minutes before your car is comfortable enough to drive in conditions such as these. Unfortunately, this practice may significantly increase your emissions.

Other common reasons for idling include waiting for passengers, stopping at railroad crossings, running quick errands, sitting in drive-through lanes, waiting to park, and sitting in traffic.

In terms of idling-prone locations, school parking lots and loading zones see some of the most idling vehicles. This is due to school busses waiting for students to board and get off the bus, as well as parents waiting to pick up their children.

The cost of idling vehicles

When you idle your car you are increasing your carbon footprint and wasting gas. When you combine the effects of many vehicles idling at once, the environmental effects are much more drastic. For example, calculations drawn from a Canadian survey of driving habits and behaviour suggest that the average Canadian driver idles for approximately eight minutes a day. During this time, over 2.2 million litres of fuel is used and over five million kilograms of greenhouse gases are emitted.

That adds up to significant costs for you in fuel and it is also a significant cost to the environment!

In addition to the environmental effects associated with idling, there are many human health effects as well. For example, exhaust can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation. In high concentrations it can even trigger asthma exacerbation, bronchitis, and decreased lung function. The air pollutants emitted from idling vehicles also contribute to cancer.

Considering the fact that idling often occurs at schools, it is important to acknowledge that children are exposed to these negative health effects. Monitoring at schools during the afternoon when parents often pick up their children has shown an increase in levels of benzene, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and other harmful air pollutants.

This is why you might have heard of idle-free zones being implemented at schools and in surrounding communities!

Idle-free zones work

Idle-free zones are exactly what they sound like: Areas in which idling of vehicles is not permitted. Idle-free zones are often implemented at schools, and common drop-off locations in order to create a safe and healthy environment, especially for children.

Luckily, it doesn’t take too much effort to set up an idle-free zone! Many free resources are available from governments and non-government organizations. Resources such as the Idle-Free Schools Toolkit for a Healthy School Environment, provided by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, can help schools and community members in the U.S. create effective idling reduction campaigns.

Tools within this kit include a recommended schedule for implementing an idle-free campaign, instructions on how to make the campaign into a student project, a Clean School Bus Teachers Guide, as well as different samples for idling policies, letters to parents, teachers, and staff, pledge forms, signs and more.

Idle-free bylaws

In addition to idle-free zones, cities can take another step towards improving the environment and citizen health. For example, the city of Edmonton passed a bylaw in 2013 that prohibits vehicles from idling in designated areas outside of schools and hospitals.

Under the bylaw, drivers cannot idle for more than five minutes within any 30 minute period when parked in a no-idling area.

How you can reduce idling

  • Use other forms of transportation wherever possible! Try public transit, carpooling, cycling, car sharing, walking or biking. 
  • When you are in your vehicle and stopped for more than 10 seconds, turn off the engine. This is mandated in some jurisdictions because it IS more efficient to turn off the vehicle than to idle for more than 10 seconds, according to the U.S. Department of Energy and others!
  • Avoid starting your car with remote control - it promotes idling.
  • Shorten the amount of time you warm up your car before driving to one minute - this is all that the engine needs to warm up! And, the engine warms up faster when it is driving.
  • Avoid drive-through line ups when possible.
  • If you do have to wait in your vehicle for more than 10 seconds, turn your car off!
  • In warm weather, keep your vehicle cool by rolling down the windows and then turn the vehicle off if waiting for more than 10 seconds.


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