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Aug 112008

By John DeFore

Not long ago, a City of Austin crew spent the day installing new “No Parking” signs along the streets of my neighborhood. Two big Ford F450 trucks sat outside my home-office window for hours while the men dug holes and planted posts — and their engines ran the entire time.

Not wanting to be the block’s eco-scold, I said nothing as the trucks rumbled. But the waste of fuel nagged at me even after the noise was gone, and I eventually called the city to find out why workers would be allowed to run their engines like that. Surely the city didn’t approve of polluting the air all morning just so the truck would be pre-air-conditioned when workers took a coffee break?

After calls to three or four city departments, I found a public works supervisor with some answers. All work trucks keep their engines running, she told me, because of the LED arrow boards mounted on them which warn drivers to keep their distance. “You can’t turn the engine off and keep the arrows going, because your battery will die down,” she said.

It was easy to see how a safety-based practice might serve as an excuse to keep the cab cooled off, even when running the arrow was unnecessary: In my case, the truck was parked on a dead-end block where no traffic could approach from behind it. The woman I spoke with agreed that conserving fuel wasn’t the easiest topic to raise with work crews. “They’ve been here a while,” she said, “and when I mention this they kind of get, ‘Well, fine, what do you want us to do for safety?’”

With any luck, Austin street crews won’t have that excuse much longer. Jennifer Wells, a deputy fleet officer, says the city has “recently applied for grant money for auxiliary power units, which would power equipment that they’d normally have to use the truck engine to power. We’d run off a battery instead.” (“We’re only buying solar-powered arrow boards from here on out,” she adds.)

Wells says the city is also “putting together a conservation task force” that will write a policy on idling to govern all public vehicles. Currently, the only anti-idling law in Austin applies solely to trucks weighing more than 14,000 pounds.

That’s odd for a town so proud of its other green accomplishments, especially considering the efforts other cities have taken to curb idling. A “Best Practices” report issued by the U.S. Conference of Mayors last year, for instance, notes anti-idling policies in places like Charlotte, NC and Indianapolis, IN; Minneapolis, MN adopted an anti-idling law in June; and the state of New Jersey prohibits all vehicles from idling (with exceptions) for more than three minutes at a time. The EPA has attempted to corral the many laws adopted by states, counties, and local governments here, but it’s a list that keeps growing.

Those laws may sound like window-dressing efforts that won’t be enforced by traffic cops, but anecdotal evidence and articles in trucking-industry magazines suggest otherwise. (This one reports travel-plaza cameras catching idlers in New Jersey and lists fines across the country that range from a hundred bucks to twenty-five grand or prison time.) Of Minneapolis’s new law, spokesperson Matt Laible says, that while the city is initially “focusing on public education” before enforcing its $200 fine, “so far this year, we’ve received 21 calls to our 311 system reporting vehicle idling,” which suggests that cops will have help from green-minded citizens.

Of course, bringing this issue up in the summer may terrify readers who live in places where August heat could almost cook an egg in a car even with the windows rolled down. Even in the most eco-conscious city, a parent dashing into the store for a gallon of milk on a 110-degree day is unlikely to draw ire for leaving the AC running for the kids; the Minneapolis ordinance, for instance, allows that “Vehicles may idle up to 15 minutes in a one hour period if the outside air temperature is less than zero degrees or higher than 90 degrees.”

Many drivers may have the false impression that laws against idling are hurting their cars or pocketbooks in the name of clean air — that turning the engine off and restarting it causes undue engine wear or wastes more gas than it saves. That may have been true for cars a few decades ago, but no longer: From the California Energy Commission (which points out that “for every two minutes a car is idling, it uses about the same amount of fuel it takes to go about one mile”) to the Florida Section of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, those myths have been thoroughly debunked.

The accepted rule of thumb for a modern car is that after ten seconds, idling uses more gas than turning the engine off and then back on; unless you’re in traffic that may resume at a moment’s notice, you should kill the engine. As for excess wear, a Canadian study cited in this Slate
article claims that “obeying the 10-second rule will add roughly $10 to a driver’s annual maintenance bill” while saving (at today’s prices) over thirty bucks’ worth of gas.

Trying to put the issue in perspective, Slate points out that “if every one of the nation’s 196 million licensed drivers reduced their idling by 10 minutes per day,” the reduction in CO2 emissions would only amount to “about 0.2 percent of the carbon dioxide that was emitted in the United States in 2006.”

But as any school crossing-guard can tell you, plenty of parents spend far more than 10 minutes a day idling as they wait to pick kids up — and school buses traditionally have done the same. Recognizing that buses are often among a community’s biggest polluters, and that the kids they carry are particularly vulnerable to polluted air, the EPA runs an awareness campaign on the issue while states and individual school districts have their own programs aimed at replacing older vehicles and greening the ones on the road.

The Environmental Defense Fund matches content to style with a “4R” school bus campaign that echoes the old “reading, writing, ‘rithmatic” mantra and the newer “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Gutsily, they’ve chosen to launch one of their two regional efforts in Texas, where Governor Rick Perry set right-minded heads shaking last year by vetoing a bus-idling ban that seemed to have support even from his old colleague George Bush.

(The ED program offers practice advice for groups wanting to clean up school bus emissions and tamp down on idling, and points to an EPA primer on retrofitting tailpipes to filter emissions. The one pictured here is designed to filter particulate matter from diesel emissions.)

Even more problematic than school buses are the trucks that haul an estimated 85% of America’s goods from producers to retailers. According to the EPA, “truck and locomotive idling consumes over 1 billion gallons of diesel fuel annually.” Almost half of that amount (along with emissions of “11 million tons of carbon dioxide, 180,000 tons of nitrogen oxides, and 5,000 tons of particulate matter annually”) comes from “long-duration truck idling” — a fact of life for truckers who sleep in their cabs and must run engines to keep them air-conditioned or heated.

A trucker recently complained to the New York Times that with rising fuel costs, “It’s to the point where you can get a motel room cheaper than you can idle the truck.” But other alternatives to idling are gaining popularity as well: Add-ons like the Pony Pack and Mack Truck’s hybrid system help electrical systems run without engine power, while some truck stops are installing electric hookups to accomplish the same goal.

One by one, justifications for leaving cars and trucks running are being made obsolete; and bit by bit, a patchwork of laws is making drivers face that fact. Before long, even the time-honored wintertime practice of letting cars warm up for a half-hour in the morning may die a well deserved death — especially with no less an authority than Tom & Ray Magliozzi’s Car Talk explaining that the practice was “bad for the car” even back before people cared how wasteful it was.

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