Idling Thoughts

By Tiffin Brough

If you’re not moving, shut it off: Why idling your car is not a good idea. For three consecutive years, Salt Lake has violated federal standards for air quality and received a designation from the EPA of "nonattainment" covering Salt Lake County and the northern Wasatch front region. Sounds bad, but what does nonattainment look like? Take a quick hike up any of the foothill trails on a "clear" afternoon in mid-winter, gaze out at the haze, and it’s obvious: Nonattainment in the Wasatch Front means very dirty air. The majority of that sepia sludge hanging over the valley comes from our cars, and luckily there’s one way to easily cut down a fair bit of those emissions: Avoid excessive idling time.

A number of government agencies, including Salt Lake City, have enacted measures in recent years to improve air and environmental quality in just this way. In August 2007, Mayor Anderson signed an executive order to limit city-owned vehicle idling, and this August, Mayor Ralph Becker amended that order to eliminate even more idle time emissions from city vehicles. The amended order reduces the idling time limit, to increase the effectiveness of the rule and help reduce fuel costs.

The newly amended Salt Lake City executive order drops the time limit for idling a vehicle based on research and input from air-quality groups. After 10 seconds, city-owned engines go off. Obviously, this has some common sense guidelines exempting stops at traffic lights and allowing engine use to operate safety equipment and other times when it is necessary to keep the engine running.

Other health and environmental quality groups are also working to affect positive changes in air quality. This September, a partnership coalition of groups including Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and other concerned agencies kicked off the Idle Free Utah program.

The initial phase of the Idle Free Utah campaign asks local schools to participate in idle-reduction efforts in their pick-up and drop-off areas. Some schools have been working to reduce idle emissions for a few years already, and have seen success in asking parents to turn off their cars while they park. The schools enlist parents, teachers, and students to get involved and get the word out. These school anti-idle zones in particular will have a high health impact if idling behavior changes, since children are more susceptible to the effects of high emission concentrations.

By now, most people are aware that air quality affects asthma and respiratory health, but less known is the fact that air quality and pollution levels affect children more acutely than it does adults. Pound for pound, four-year-olds, for example, breathe more air for their size than they do as adults. Parents dropping off kids typically idle their cars out of habit, and schools with idle reduction efforts have seen up to 100% compliance. Once the word gets out (often with the help of enthusiastic kids), driving habits change.

Many states have ordinances in place making idling illegal in certain circumstances, and often school buses are a main focus. One agency involved in idling reduction efforts, Utah Clean Cities, has worked over the last year to help secure government funding to retrofit buses and keep emissions from entering the bus. Also, bus drivers have signed a pledge to reduce their idle-time. This is not a legal ordinance, but a successful voluntary effort to protect air quality and public health.

Schools aren’t the only idling hotspots. The Idle Free Utah campaign program hopes to change everyday behaviors outside school zones, and get drivers thinking about their engine impact in other situations as well. On a day-to-day level, many people idle when they should just be turning off their engines. Parking the car and walking in for that morning cup of coffee or to make that bank deposit will likely take about the same amount of time as inching through the drive-up while burning expensive fuel and adding pounds of emissions in the air. Idle Free Utah hopes that by educating the public, more people will choose to turn off their cars whenever possible, saving their gasoline for driving. Recently they have launched a public-information website,, which provides facts and figures on the importance of turning that key off. They also distribute stickers for the back window of vehicles, serving both as a pledge to be idle-free as well as a suggestion for other drivers.

When should you turn off your car? There is an average tipping point between the amount of emissions produced while a vehicle is idle and the those produced by stopping and restarting the engine. Studies have been done suggesting 10 seconds as a good average point-after which more gasoline is spent and more emissions are produced than if you were to just turn off the car and restart it when you are ready to move.

I grew up with old cars, and my family would start and let them run a bit in the mornings before going out. So I was wondering about this-were we horribly misguided? Familar old habits make people run their engines when they do not need to, but cars today are more efficient, with fuel-injected engines and higher performance across the board: These machines are designed to be driven. Letting your engine run idle burns fuel less cleanly than operating it at full capacity and builds up more engine-deteriorating grit when left idling over extended periods.

To warm up your engine, start the car and drive it gently at first. It takes less than a minute for the fluid levels to be ready, and all parts of the car warm up faster with use rather than sitting idle.

With all these emissions on the road, some motorbike and scooter drivers wear masks or scarves over their nose and mouth to ease the fumes. Perhaps surprisingly, though, enclosed cabs of running vehicles collect more emissions than being outside on the "open" road. Turning your car off while you are waiting protects the people riding inside your car as much as it does our clear blue skies and the scooter riders. Breathing a little easier is worth a minute without idling.

The Idle Free Utah effort is a volunteer effort for each school involved in reducing their idle vehicle times. Volunteers speak to drivers and hand out window decals to anyone willing to make the commitment to keep emissions down while picking up and dropping off kids.Window decals that remind drivers to "turn the key" are available at libraries; at the information desk. Citizens are encouraged to adopt the habit to protect their own health, the health of people in the car, and to keep the Wasatch clear and beautiful.

Tiffin Brough is an advocate for constructive, community service-oriented projects.

Find more information and materials about the campaign online at, or contact Renee Zollinger with Salt Lake City Corporation, at 801-535-7215;

This article was originally published on September 30, 2008.