Idling vehicles gets us nowhere
The other morning I woke up to five large utility trucks in front of my house. They were there to repair a power line, blown down by strong winds made heavier by sudden gusts of rain. Four of these trucks, quite a distance from the split oak, lay unoccupied, purring their tiny asthmatic particles on my lawn, on the ball field and on the playground of my daughters’ elementary school. Surely everywhere, wherever trees hang above power lines, this scene repeated itself.
I realize that I am not alone in my eco-anxiety, grieved by the cataclysmic events of this season and our reluctance to do much about it. This made the synthetic soundscape even louder – muscle trucks echoing the Parkway, air conditioning running all the time, planes carrying Hawaiian shirts, leaf blowers, dump trucks. But I’m not content to give up my childish airs for an Amazon cardboard parade.
After about an hour of idling, I approached the shift foreman with a line that I’ve given more frequently lately: âSorry to bother you, but I don’t know if you are aware of this. our city’s anti-idling law. âThere is no federal law against idling, and the laws of local communities vary, adding to the legitimate confusion among drivers. Where I live, with a few exceptions, idling is only “allowed” for one minute. At this point, however, no fines have been collected.
The foreman looked down into the cab of his truck and told me, nicely enough, that this did not apply to his emergency vehicles. “But what about those 50 and 100 meters away?” My voice was weak against the growl, and the more he looked in disbelief, the smaller I felt.
In the midst of all of this now, it’s easy and understandable to lose sight of the pernicious reality of air quality. And in the hierarchy of coal-fired power plants, petrochemicals and waste incinerators, idling seems like a small offense, an act so seemingly innocuous it’s called “idling.”
But as with so many things, the evil is not in the singular act, but in the accumulation. Every day in America we burn nearly 4 million gallons of fuel to go nowhere. Engine exhaust gases irritate and inflame the respiratory tract and are particularly harmful to children, which breathe faster and inhale more air per pound of body weight. We regret that around 5 million people worldwide have died from COVID-19, although more than 10 millions people die from air pollution every year.
By design, most environmentally degrading behavior occurs where you wouldn’t really look – far in the oil sands of northern Alberta, or seven miles below the ocean floor, acting like termites, which can eat away at your foundation right now. Idling is more like the bug, sitting over there in full view. I don’t know for sure the guy with the Denali keeps his whole house at 64F all summer, but I can see him in the emergency lane of the Foodtown grocery store, sharing his gasoline, waiting for the popsicles. – it’s hot, after all!
They watch their kid play soccer when it’s a little soft, they line up for Starbucks takeout, they have 40 minutes early to pick up their kid. I am amazed how many are not even in their cars at all.
Back in Foodtown, I came to see this as an opportunity. When else can you find your target audience, unable to suppress themselves, just sitting there? To date, I have approached around 50 cars, and my raw technique has improved markedly once I have observed Georges pakenham, the anti-idle guru. Of Over 3,000 Of the New York City motorists he visited, he convinced 80 percent to turn off their engines; he also finds that three quarters of them don’t even know there is a law against it.
I have had similar results, and I actually find people’s ignorance encouraging. Really, I don’t know if some people make the connection between pollution and warming air. It can lead to conversations that end better than they started: “I’m running my air conditioner because it’s hot, okay?” May give way to some idea that their AC is a reason, albeit a small one, why it’s hot. Just as I’m pretty sure idling is an unconscious habit for them, I imagine no one alive has asked them about it. So maybe they think about it. Every now and then someone thanks me for the reminder.
Approaching strangers with the intention of changing their behavior isn’t for everyone, I realize. This is why I have found it gratifying to share the campaign with my local Conservation Commission. Maybe your city has one, or the tidal wave to form one? They put me in touch with the school’s PTSA and with young activists from local schools, who have the most at stake.
We work with elementary school children to design artwork for their collection areas, hold discussions in the library, connect with neighboring towns, and exchange upbeat emails with phrases like, âLike it’s great to have walked your street with your son! âIt was like waking up a sleeping giant – suddenly there is a reason my neighbors are talking.
The milestones for federal action on climate change are distant and shifting, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to wait. We will only address this by making connections – between what we use and what we breathe, and with each other. Chances are, people won’t want to throw in the towel just so we can get things with more torque. Find them.
Tim donahue teaches high school English and writes about climate change, education and endurance sports.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.