Spring into Sustainable Mobility!

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Tompkins Weekly  4-7-14

By Chrisophia Somerfeldt

Have you ever wished you could do something radical—yet not overwhelming—about climate change? Here’s one idea: turn off your car. More specifically, turn off your ignition when parked and stop unnecessary idling. You can save money, reduce emissions and protect the health of kids, all at the same time.

Debunking Modern Idling Myths

Turning off the car during short stops often feels strange to my family, friends, and even to me. For starters, as a recent study by Vanderbilt University shows, the majority of Americans hold false, outdated beliefs about idling. Fact: modern cars warm up better by slow acceleration than by sitting still. A study by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation showed that a car driven (gently) for 12 minutes in 14-degree-Fahrenheit weather will reach the same temperature as one that idles for 30 minutes. Your car’s interior will also warm up faster in motion, and you won’t have to inhale the exhaust that often leaks into stationary cars.

What about wear and tear on the engine? More frequent restarting has little impact on modern engine components like the battery and starter. On the other hand, idling can contribute to incomplete combustion or “glazing” inside the engine, fouling of the spark plugs, aging of the catalytic converter, and increased corrosion of the exhaust system. Idling an engine forces it to operate in an inefficient and gasoline-rich mode that, over time, can degrade the engine’s performance and reduce fuel efficiency.

A third myth is that re-starting uses more gas than idling. Wrong! Running your car uses more gas. Two minutes of idling uses gas equal to about a mile’s worth of driving. A good rule of thumb is to turn off your car when stopped for just ten seconds or more—but the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, found that restarting a six-cylinder engine uses as much gas as idling the same car for just six seconds!

For Kids’ Sake

Warming a car by driving slowly and turning it off for even the shortest drop-off, chat or wait simply makes sense. But will that affect more than your wallet? Absolutely. Vehicle exhaust contains numerous carcinogens and can exacerbate cardiovascular disease, asthma, lung cancer, diabetes, and other health issues. When you turn off your car, you preserve local air quality and protect those most vulnerable: elders, people already facing health issues, and children.

In fact, schools everywhere are adopting anti-idling policies and practices, including in New York State, where DEC regulations prohibit more than five minutes of idling for all heavy duty vehicles and buses, except for certain functional or safety reasons. Ithaca City code also prohibits needless idling over five minutes, and at least 31 states and cities from Aspen, CO to Washington, D.C. have anti-idling laws, with D.C.’s involving a $1,000 fine for a first time violation by a commercial vehicle.

Reducing Greenhouse Gases

So what if we all turn our cars off for even the shortest (non-traffic) stops—would that really influence climate change? Idling is estimated to produce approximately 1.6 percent of all carbon emissions in the United States. According to research done by Natural Resources Canada, if 100 drivers of light duty vehicles avoided idling for 5 minutes a day, over the course of a year it would be equal to taking 8 vehicles off the road.

The Vanderbilt study mentioned earlier calculated that sitting in place while the engine is running cumulatively wastes more than 10 billion gallons of gasoline each year and that even “a one-minute decline in idling among those 57 percent of Americans estimated to hold inaccurate beliefs about idling would reduce CO2 emissions by roughly 8 million tons annually and eliminate the need for 903 million gallons of gasoline per year.” Add those emissions reductions to less gas being transported and cars lasting longer, and we are starting to get somewhere.

A Cultural Revolution?

What may be most radical about turning off our stopped cars, however, is the cultural shift involved. Idling myths are one barrier to stopping idling—another may be our emotional reluctance to turn off our cars. I have seen this in myself, my family, and my eco-conscious neighbors, who will insist: “Oh, we’re just talking for a minute!”(5 minutes) or “She’s just running in the house to grab something!” (10 minutes). It seems that leaving our vehicles running makes us feel, ironically, that we are being efficient, that somehow we are moving faster through our day. What if we just stop ‘running’ everywhere?! Let’s see what happens when we turn off our cars and just be present with a conversation, with waiting, with taking the time we need and being aware of our choices.

For more inspiration, a pledge opportunity and a cool sticker, go to iturnitoff.com. Or contact local Transportation Educator Chrisophia Somerfeldt of Way2Go of Tompkins County Cooperative Extension, at chrisophia@cornell.edu or 607-272-2292.



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