South County Environmentalist Wants to Stop Idling

By REGINA DeANGELO/ecoRI News contributor

No one was inside the Mercedes-Benz that sat idling outside the shopping center in New City, N.Y., on a summer afternoon in 1979. For the next 30 or so minutes, the car sat running, unoccupied. Sharon Gold then watched as a woman came out of the store with her shopping bags and got into the idling vehicle.

“They would leave their cars running while they went shopping,” she recalled, “so they could return to an air-conditioned car.”

Vehicle idling has been understood to be a pollutant for generations. In the 1970s, when Gold first felt motivated to do something about it, it was one aspect of what was then called the ecology movement.

That movement, which has grown into the sociopolitical force called environmentalism, could be mapped in a graph of Gold’s own life: In 1979, after earning a master’s degree in environmental studies from City University in New York, she introduced an environmental-education program in her school district — the same town where she first noticed the idling — and taught workshops in environmental studies.

That same year she was selected to staff an interactive exhibit at the Museum of Natural History in New York City, where she interpreted on a new field of study. That exhibit, 38 years ago, was perhaps one of the first to shed light on the increasingly worrying problem: global warming.

“It took up a whole wing,” said Gold, recalling the exhibit she staffed, “and it covered all the aspects of environmental problems we have today: ocean acidification; the changes in jet-stream flows; intense storms, droughts ... and this far and distant thing called solar power.”

And everything they predicted,” she said, “is happening now.”

Nearly four decades later, Gold, who now lives in Wakefield, R.I., and is retired from her teaching career, is working with environmentalist groups to teach them about the polluting effects of vehicle idling, and to create idle-free zones in Rhode Island.

She has met with Sen. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., state representatives and members of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s staff in hopes of passing an anti-idling bill, and has addressed town councils and spoken with school superintendents in Narragansett and South Kingstown. So far there has been no commitment, but she has gotten some encouragement from Bryant Da Cruz, a South Kingstown council member.

According to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), idling vehicles emit the same pollutants as moving cars. Those pollutants, which include carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, particulates, and volatile organic compounds, have been linked to asthma, heart disease, chronic bronchitis, and cancer.

A pound of carbon dioxide is released every 10 minutes during which a car idles, according to the New York City-based nonprofit. Carbon dioxide is a main culprit in global warming. The EDF has reported that in New York City alone “idling cars and trucks produce 130,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year. To offset this amount of global warming pollution, we would need to plant an area the size of Manhattan with trees every single year.”

Diesel exhaust is listed as the most significant cancer-causing air pollutant in each of New England’s six states. Much of the diesel exhaust now spewed into the air is a toxic concoction of sooty particles and about 40 known poisonous substances, such as arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde and nickel. The Environmental Protection Agency determined 15 years ago that diesel exhaust is a likely cancer-causing agent.

These are some of the facts Gold relates to the idlers she approaches in their cars and trucks. Their response is often less than friendly.

“When I approach them to give them a flier about the effects of idling, they roll up their windows ... and keep idling,” she said.

If the poisoning effects of idling fail to motivate drivers to stop doing it, perhaps appealing to their wallets might work. To this effect the EDF offers: “An idling car uses between 1/5 to 7/10 of a gallon of fuel an hour. An idling diesel truck burns approximately one gallon of fuel an hour.” (At current diesel prices, that’s about $3 per hour tossed into the wind.)

EDF also notes that, contrary to popular belief, restarting a car doesn’t use more fuel than leaving it idling. “In fact, idling for just 10 seconds wastes more gas than restarting the engine.”

Warming up is also unnecessary. Electronic car technology has obviated the need to warm up the car. It takes only seconds for a car’s engine to be warm enough to drive, and the best way to get it going is to simply drive it, because it warms up twice as quickly during driving than idling.

Warming the interior is even better served by not idling. A vehicle’s heating system delivers warm air faster during driving. And while we are sitting in an idling car, our lungs take in the exhaust pollutants that leak into the car cabin. While waiting in a cold climate, the EDF suggests that instead of sitting in a warm and idling car, it’s healthier — for the driver as well as everyone nearby — to turn off the car and walk into a store.

Another debunked notion idlers might cite is that frequent restarts are rough on the engine and the battery. But this wear, in numbers, is much less costly than what is wasted in fuel while idling. And over time, idling wears on an engine by causing it to work more than needed.

Despite idling’s prevalence, there is some encouraging popular movement making progress against it. Rest stops on the New Jersey Turnpike have “No Idling” signs next to the picnic area. Vermont’s state buildings are now posting “No Idling” signs. Ann Arbor, Mich., recently adopted an anti-idling ordinance limiting idling of all vehicles to five minutes, or be fined $100.

In 2007, Rhode Island joined Massachusetts and Connecticut “prohibiting the unnecessary idling of diesel-powered vehicles and equipment.” Under the law, idling of on-road diesel-powered vehicles is limited to 5 consecutive minutes in any 60-minute period, and non-road diesel engines are prohibited from any unnecessary idling, except as provided in the exempt situations. The law is seldom enforced.

Idle-Free California is implementing student-directed education programs in schools that address the health, climate and energy impacts of idling on school grounds. Parents who sit in their running cars while waiting to pick up their children might soon be subjected to a lecture.

In Rhode Island, Gold is working on a similar school program. She also has spoken with CVS, Dave’s Markets, Shaw’s and Stop & Shop to see about “No Idling” signs in their parking lots.

Despite the lack of enforcement and apathetic government response, Gold is dedicated to reducing idling. She remembers one of her colleagues at Climate Change Lobby telling her that nothing can be done about idling.

“That,” she said, “made me want to take on the challenge.”