By Tony Zeli
We’re well into the season of remote starters and the start and scrape, as we all struggle to warm our cars against the bitter and dangerous cold. But, the Portland Climate Action Team (PCAT) wants you to think twice before you idle your car. The message of the Idle-Free Portland campaign: it’s bad for the environment, bad for our health, wastes fuel, and is just plain gross. So, please, just turn your engine off.
To get everyone on board, this group of local environmentalists sponsored by the Sierra Club, are jump starting the Idle-Free Portland campaign. You may know PCAT from some of their other successes. They were a prime mover behind the municipal solar array at the Ocean Avenue Landfill. And they share their Bright Ideas every month under our Climate Justice category.
They ask that you consider the price we all pay for the convenience of idling. According to the US Department of Energy, personal vehicle idling wastes about three billion gallons of fuel every year. That’s generating 30 million tons of CO2 annually, and costing Americans $13 million dollars every day! Eliminating unnecessary idling of just personal vehicles would be the same as taking five million vehicles off the roads.
Idling is also bad for your lungs. The pollutants in car exhaust fumes have been linked to serious human illnesses including asthma, heart disease, chronic bronchitis, and cancer. Children are especially at risk: exposures during pregnancy and early childhood to roadside air pollution have been linked to higher rates of subsequent respiratory and developmental problems, according to a study published in 2009 by “Pediatrics.”
For these reasons it’s illegal to idle in some places, including the City of Portland. Technically, you’re not supposed to idle for more than five minutes within the city limits, commercial or residential vehicles, subject to a $25 ticket. (There is an exception if the temps are below 0 degrees.) Of course, just saying so doesn’t make it so. It’s difficult to enforce, and do people even notice the signs?
Signs, Signs, Signs
“You know you see no idling signs around different places and so on, and then you see people sitting right in front of them with their cars running as they scroll through their messages,” notes Rosanne Graef, a member of PCAT and regular contributor to The West End News.
Given grim statistics and a lack of noticeable enforcement, Rosanne and a subcommittee of PCAT members decided to take action. The idle-free campaign presented itself as an effort in which anybody could take part.
“Not everybody can start biking to work. Not everybody can afford an electric car, and so on… But idle-free was something we thought was meaningful and doable.”
Their first focus is on schools, where parents idle while dropping off and picking up children, who are particularly vulnerable to toxic car exhaust fumes. PCAT would like to speak with your PTO or green team about sharing informational postcards designed by the former publisher of The West End News and local cartoonist, Ed King. He also designed the banner.
Their other focus is on Casco Bay Bridge with the message: Bridge up. Engine off. More than 32,000 vehicles cross this draw bridge each day. PCAT’s advice, if you’re unlucky enough to get caught when the bridge is up, take the opportunity to turn off your car, step out, and enjoy the view.
Idle-Free in Drivers’ Manual
The PCAT Idle-Free committee has also gotten the Secretary of State to agree to put information about the importance of reducing unnecessary idling in the next edition of the Maine Driver Education Manual. They’re working on the Commercial and Motorcycle learners’ manuals next, a bigger hurdle since those are nationally produced.
I asked Rosanne how she would respond to anyone who says, “Hey, it’s winter and I’ve got to warm up my car.”
Rosanne, having grown up in rural Maine in the 1950s, didn’t hesitate: “You warm up your car by driving it… and a little discomfort never killed anybody.”
Do you know of a good spot to hang the Idle-Free Portland banner? It’s 30 ft. long and 3½ ft. high. Contact Rosanne Graef at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tony Zeli is publisher and editor. Reach him at: email@example.com.