Idle Threat

🕔Dec 03, 2008

I’ve done it. I’m a bad girl. In fact, I did it a lot last winter – I knew it was wrong, but it felt so good!
I bet you’ve done it too. (In fact, rural dwellers apparently do it even more than urbanites.) Parents do it when they’re waiting to pick up their kids. Those lining up for the morning double-double do it forever. Who knew being dirty was such a pervasive aspect of our lives?
Vehicle idling is everywhere, yet it shouldn’t be; shutting off that engine will save us money and help clean up the air! With both high gas prices and high air pollution indices in the north, it’s time to change our ways.

Cold Start? No way!

Yes way. Well, sort of. Don’t turn the key and floor it—rather, start up and cruise for a while. The best way for most vehicles to get warm is to be driven slowly: it raises the coolant temperature faster, gets the drive train working, warms up the differential oil and transmission oil, and warms up the tires so they can roll better. No length of idling will do all that. So no more “Honey, can you go start the car?” Make sure you have a block heater, and dress warmly. (Incidentally, it uses more gas to idle for ten seconds than it does to turn off and restart your vehicle.)

Money to Burn

Idling consumes fuel: between one-quarter and one-half litre of gas per ten minutes for an average-sized engine. Also, it increases maintenance costs significantly as it contaminates engine oil faster, reducing its efficacy as a lubricant and slashing its useful life by seventy-five percent. Further, carbon build-up from incomplete combustion fouls up spark plugs (in gas engines) and fuel injectors, valve seats and piston crowns (in both gas and diesel engines). Engine wear studies show that idling for one hour is equivalent to two hours of driving, drastically shortening your engine’s life. No vehicle—gas or diesel—benefits from idling.

Smog the Dragon

If saving your vehicle isn’t a good enough reason, then what about saving your health? PM 2.5 (the particulate matter found in vehicle emissions) is the worst public health problem from air pollution in BC. Since air knows no boundaries, we all have a role to play (and especially in the North, with our car-dependent lifestyles and our huge greenhouse-gas footprint). Choosing to idle (and drive) as little as possible is a responsible choice every citizen can make. Our winter inversions (where a layer of warm air traps a layer of cooler air) keep pollutants in the valley bottoms for everyone to breathe. So much for that clean country air!
The dangers of idling seem far-fetched, but data are piling up to show that its effects are enormously harmful on a collective scale. If Canadian light-duty vehicle drivers (that’s us) idled three minutes less per day we would save 630 million litres of fuel per year, and avoid emitting over 1.4 million tonnes of greenhouse gasses.

Movers and Shakers

Some fleet operators have seen the light and are saving money by idling less: Williams Lake’s idle reduction policy for its municipal fleet has reaped an average fuel savings of approximately 20 percent (with some units showing a savings of up to 50 percent). Maintenance costs dropped 20 percent with a subsequent reduction in equipment downtime. Many other communities are hopping on board: Dawson Creek is working towards making its municipal fleet idle-free, and the city of Prince George has built partnerships with other stakeholders in the community to work towards cleaner air through reduced idling. A number of communities down south have passed idling by-laws.

For Their Sake

Donna Rivet’s grade 6 class at Thornhill Elementary in Terrace took matters into their own hands last year. They campaigned to reduce idling in their community and have since been recognized as a “success story” on the Idlefree BC website ( From letters to council to putting up posters and taking pledges, these youth made waves. Says Rivet, “The students learned that they can take action to create change; they know now that they can have a voice and make a difference.”
Like I said, I did it. I’m a bad girl. But the more I learn about how to change my negative habits, the better off we all are. Seemingly small actions on a collective scale will add up to significant change! Ask yourself where your community stands with regards to idling, and if you’re not sure, go find out! If there isn’t a policy, get together with some friends and lobby for one. This winter, I’m going to turn that key off whenever possible and try to drive less. Maybe one day these words from Robert Orben just won’t make sense – “There’s so much pollution in the air now that if it weren’t for our lungs, there’d be no place to put it all”.
Curious about how dirty you are? Check out