Vehicle Idling Gets Us Nowhere | Opinion

The other morning I woke up to five large utility trucks outside my house. They were there to fix a power line, downed by ripping winds made heavier by sudden bursts of rain. Four of these trucks, ranging pretty far away from the cloven oak, sat unoccupied, purring out their tiny, asthma-inducing particulates across my lawn, across the ball field, and onto my daughters' elementary school playground. Surely all over, wherever trees hang over power lines, this scene was being repeated.

I realize I'm not alone in my eco-anxiety, distressed about this season's cataclysmic events and our distance from bothering to do much about it. It has made the synthetic soundscape even louder—muscle trucks echoing up the Parkway, AC running all the time, planes carrying Hawaiian shirts, leaf blowers, dump trucks. But I am not content to give up my children's air for a parade of Amazon boxes.

After about an hour of this idling, I approached the crew's foreman with a line I've given more frequently of late: "Sorry to trouble you, but I don't know if you're aware of our town's anti-idling law." There is no federal law against idling, and laws among local communities vary, adding to legitimate confusion among drivers. Where I live, with some exceptions, idling is only "allowed" for one minute. At this point, though, zero fines have been collected.

The foreman looked down from high in the cab of his truck, and told me, kindly enough, this did not apply to his emergency vehicles. "But what about the ones 50 and 100 yards away?" My voice was faint against the rumble, and the more he stared incredulously, the smaller I felt.

In the midst of it all now, it's easy and understandable to lose perspective on the pernicious reality of air quality. And in the hierarchy of coal-fired power plants, petrochemical manufacturers and waste incinerators, idling seems like a small offense, an act so seemingly innocuous it is called "idling."

But as with so much, the harm is not in the singular act, but in the accumulation. Every day in the U.S., we burn nearly 4 million gallons of fuel to go nowhere. Engine exhaust irritates and inflames the respiratory tract and is particularly harmful to children, who breathe faster and inhale more air per pound of body weight. We lament that, globally, nearly 5 million people have died from COVID-19, though more than 10 million people die each year from air pollution.

By design, most environmentally degrading behaviors occur where you wouldn't really look—far away in the tar sands of northern Alberta, or seven miles beneath the ocean floor, acting like termites, which may be gnawing at your very foundation right now. Idling is more like the stinkbug, sitting out there in broad view. I don't know for a fact that the guy with the Denali keeps his whole house at 64 F all summer long, but I can see him in the emergency lane at the grocery store Foodtown, sharing his gas, as he waits for the popsicles—it's hot out, after all!

Traffic moves along Boulevard East
Traffic moves along Boulevard East. Kena Betancur/VIEWpress/Corbis via Getty Images

They are watching their child play soccer while it's a little bit nippy, they're in line for Starbucks takeout, they're 40 minutes early to pick up their kid. I'm amazed at how many aren't even in their cars at all.

Back at Foodtown, I've come to see this as an opportunity. When else can you find your intended audience, unable to delete themselves, just sitting there? By now, I've approached about 50 cars, and my raw technique improved markedly once I observed George Pakenham, the anti-idling guru. Of the 3,000-plus New York City motorists he's visited, he's convinced 80 percent to shut off their engines; he also finds that three-quarters of them don't even know there's a law against it.

I've had similar results, and I actually find people's ignorance to be encouraging. Truly, I don't know that some people make the connection between pollution and warming air. This can result in conversations that end better than they begin: "I'm running my AC because it's hot out, OK?" can give way to some notion that their AC is one reason, albeit small, as to why it's hot out. Just as I am almost certain that idling is an unconscious habit for them, I imagine no live person has asked them about this. So maybe they think about it. Every now and then, someone thanks me for the reminder.

Approaching strangers with the intent of modifying their behavior is not for everyone, I realize. This is why I've found it rewarding to share the campaign with my local Conservation Commission. Perhaps your town has one, or the groundswell to form one? They have put me in touch with the school's PTSA and with young activists from the local schools, who have the most at stake.

We're working with elementary school kids to design artwork for their pickup zones, we're hosting discussions through the library, we're connecting with neighboring towns and exchanging upbeat emails with expressions like: "How great that you flyered your street with your son!" It's been like waking a sleeping giant—suddenly, there's a reason for my neighbors to talk.

The goalposts of federal action on climate change are distant and shifting and it's becoming less and less easy 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 don't want to throw in the towel just so we can get stuff with more torque. Find them.

Tim Donahue teaches high school English and writes about climate change, education and endurance sports.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.