Idle no more


While the title of this article might indicate an exhortation to get out of the winter inactivity doldrums and start raking the lawn or planting the garden, my purpose is really something else. In the 2013 Legislative Session I introduced a bill to prohibit the idling of motor vehicles and trucks to not more than five minutes in a 60-minute period. This proposal found its way into an omnibus Motor Vehicle law that passed the House and Senate last May and was signed into law by the governor. That law went into effect on May 5.

Vehicle idling threatens public health through the emission of carcinogens, fine particulate matter, and carbon dioxide. It contributes unnecessarily to greenhouse gas emissions and burns money out the tailpipe.

The EPA has determined that diesel exhaust is a likely human carcinogen. It contains over 450 components, including nitrogen oxides and volatile organic chemicals that can trigger asthma attacks and harm the respiratory system. The fine particulate matter in diesel exhaust can lodge in the lungs, particularly those of children.

If the harm done to the human body were not enough, consider what tailpipe emissions do to air quality in general, and to the climate. The amount of carbon in the atmosphere (measured in parts per million) is fast approaching dangerous, and potentially catastrophic levels. According to the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, greenhouse gas emissions have gone up nearly twice as fast in this century as they did in the final years of the 20th century. To keep carbon numbers at somewhat reasonable limits we need to reduce emissions by 40 to 70 percent by mid-century. Limited idling, along with many other measures, can be an important component of any carbon reduction strategy. This is especially true in Vermont, where an estimated 47 percent of carbon dioxide emissions come from the transportation sector. Consider this fact from the organization Idle-Free Vermont: if the 572,000 vehicles registered in Vermont in 2012 reduced their idling by five minutes per day the total carbon dioxide emissions reduction could exceed 84 million pounds per year. That is significant.

As for the economics of idling: one hour of idling a heavy-duty truck uses one gallon of gas. For light trucks and cars it would be less, but still, the dollars add up. Estimates in yearly savings for individuals range from $28 to $215; for business with fleets the range is $1,300 to $100,000.

Then we can consider the state budget. Vermont is on the verge of being out of compliance with the Clean Air Act. If this were to happen, or if the EPA changed the standards, every state transportation project would need a thorough review to determine how it might effect air quality. This could result in delays and extra costs.

There are many exemptions to the law, such as the allowed idling of police, fire, and rescue vehicles, and the ability to idle for safety, traffic congestion, passenger comfort, vehicle repair, and a host of reasons. You cannot idle a heavy truck (over 10,000 pounds) in a private driveway or parking lot, though you can idle a car or light truck. For complicated legal reasons we were not able to limit that. However the public health and environmental consequences of idling might inspire one to refrain from warming up the engine while enjoying one more morning cup of coffee. Old myths about the need to warm up engines have been debunked by the EPA, diesel engine manufacturers and technical experts. Current standards recommend no more than 3 to 5 minutes. Unnecessary idling shortens the life of the engine.

What are the penalties for breaking this new law? A mere $10 for a first violation, $50 for the second, and $100 for a third violation. This is not meant to downplay the seriousness of the infraction, but rather to point out that the law itself is meant to be educational as well as prohibitive. And in fact, one provision of the bill starts this process with students, by mandating that every driver education program in the state teach the adverse environmental, health, and economic effects of idling. In other education programs, the American Lung Association has been advocating for a comprehensive bill like this for years. They offer a program to businesses called Vermont Idle-Free Fleets to help companies implement an idling reduction policy. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters has saved over $20,000 per year in reduced gasoline usage due to its no-idling policy.

The law and its exemptions distinguish between what is really necessary and what is merely convenient. We need to change our culture of entitlement and thoughtlessness regarding the effect of gasoline and diesel powered motor vehicles on public health and the environment. This law goes some way to achieving that.

Mollie S. Burke represents Brattleboro District 2 in the the Vermont House of Representatives. She is on the House Transportation Committee.


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