The Automobile, Part Three: Idling Gets You Nowhere

February 23, 2003

By Michael Jessen

What heart can think, or tongue express, The harm that groweth of idleness? - John Heywood

A 16th century English dramatist and collector of proverbs, John Heywood would find the answer to his poetic question today in the person of Canadian Terry Lowery.

While Heywood wrote about people engaged in the state of being idle, Lowery frowns upon engines idling.

Lowery, a 52-year-old shop supervisor and heavy-duty mechanic at the Whitewater Ski Resort in Nelson, British Columbia, has not been shy in expressing the harm of idling engines to anyone that will listen. And the facts he has accumulated will -- hopefully -- make you sit up, take notice, and turn off your idling car or truck engine. Or any other engine for that matter. Here are just three that Lowery found from sources like Natural Resources Canada:

Fact: Idling for more than 10 seconds costs more than turning off your engine.

Fact: Canadian motorists idle their vehicles an average of five to ten minutes per day. A recent study suggests that in the peak of winter, Canadians unconsciously idle their vehicles for a combined total of more than 75 million minutes a day.

Fact: If every driver of a light-duty vehicle in Canada avoided idling for just five minutes per day, we would save 1.9 million litres of fuel worth more than $1.3 million and we would prevent more than 4,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

Once you start looking for idling engines, it's amazing how many you can find, especially in winter as drivers feel obligated to idle to keep their vehicles warm. Ah, but the harm that is done. More facts that Lowery found:

Fact: Prolonged idling reduces the operating life of engine oil by 75%.

Fact: One hour of idling is equivalent to 2 hours of driving - imagine how that affects your engine!

The health effect of idling engines is actually what originally got Lowery interested in the issue. "I got my first taste of idling effects in 1973 while sitting in a helicopter waiting for take off, the exhaust was seriously stifling," he said in an interview. The next year brought out the activist in Lowery. "In 1974 in Los Angeles, I was caught in a traffic jam with literally hundreds of idling cars of over an hour. The exhaust was so bad I actually thought I was going to pass out. That prompted my first letter to the City of Los Angeles suggesting that idling in a traffic jam should be illegal."

Lowery is no less of an activist today. As the secretary of a newly formed action group called Nelson Clean Air Protection, he is spearheading an anti-idling campaign in Nelson and area. Lowery has prepared fact sheets about idling and says his co-workers at Whitewater have changed their behaviour since he started talking about the issue. Visitors to Whitewater also idle their engines far too much and have received some of Lowery's fact sheets, again promising behavioural change.

With over 45 years mechanical experience (his grandfather got him started at age 6), Lowery first became interested in idling from the perspective of engine efficiency. The interest became a passion "due to the polluted air that I can actually feel in my lungs," he said.

"I've been aware of global warming for some years and in the past couple of years started formulating this idling concept," Lowery adds. "I actually came to the idea on my own and even pioneered changing some of the long held faulty concepts around idling."

Here are three idling myths that Lowery found, each with their own reality check:

Myth #1: The engine should be warmed up before driving. Reality: Idling is not an effective way to warm up your vehicle, even in cold weather. The best way to do this is to drive the vehicle. With today's modern engines, you need no more than 30 seconds of idling on winter days before driving away.

Myth #2: Idling is good for your engine. Reality: Excessive idling can actually damage your engine components, including cylinders, spark plugs and exhaust systems.

Myth #3: Shutting off and restarting your vehicle is hard on the engine and uses more gas than if you leave it running. Reality: Frequent restarting has little impact on engine components like the battery and the starter motor. Component wear caused by restarting the engine is estimated to add $10 per year to the cost of driving, money that will likely be recovered several times over in fuel savings from reduced idling. The bottom line is that over ten seconds of idling uses more fuel than restarting the engine.

Since the personal bottom line of every British Columbia driver was severely impacted by a 3.5 cent per litre addition to the gas tax on March 1, idling drivers should be aware that when idling their vehicles are getting 0 kilometres to the litre (or miles to the gallon).

Emissions from idling vehicles also have a significant impact on the quality of air in our communities. Recent studies by Health Canada and community health departments and agencies have shown a direct link between contaminants in vehicle emissions and significant respiratory health effects. These studies have concluded that poor air quality and smog -- caused in part by vehicle exhaust -- are resulting in increased hospital admissions, respiratory illnesses and premature deaths, particularly in urban areas.

In fact, Health Canada estimates that more than 16,000 Canadians die prematurely each year because of air pollution, and thousands more become unnecessarily ill. Children are particularly vulnerable to air pollution because they breathe faster than adults and inhale more air per pound of body weight. Air pollution also causes unnecessary difficulty for elderly people and those with respiratory problems, such as asthma.

When Lowery started searching the Internet about idling, he was amazed at the resources he found. "I was surprised to find so much interest out there when I started looking into it," Lowery said. "I was also relieved to find support for some of the practices I had been implementing at Whitewater."

The City of Mississauga, Ontario has been a Canadian leader in the campaign against idling vehicles. It has a web site at The community has a city ordinance against idling as have two other Ontario cities -- Toronto ( and London -- and Ashland, Oregon.

Schools are receiving special attention in Mississauga during the year-long anti-idling campaign since parents often idle while waiting to pick up their children. In the US, the state of Minnesota ( adopted legislation in May 2002 to protect the health and safety of children from harmful diesel bus emissions. The law calls for schools to reduce the unnecessary idling of school buses in front of schools, and reroute bus parking zones away from air-intake vents. Yale University's Dr. John Wargo recently found that students on school buses are exposed to 5 to 15 times the levels of particulate pollution than at nearby monitoring sites. Some schools have posted signs outlawing idling and use the slogan "Young Minds at Work" in reference to the sensitivity young people have to air pollution.

Another of Lowery's favourite anti-idling web sites is Natural Resources Canada at that bills itself as "Canada's first web site dedicated to helping Canadians stop unnecessary engine idling in their communities." If you're interested in starting an anti-idling campaign at your school or workplace, or a broader community wide awareness and outreach campaign, this web site can provide an anti-idling tool kit ready to use graphic images and other downloadable materials.

Our lifestyles have a major impact on our environment. We know we must reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Each of us produces about 5 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year through unsustainable lifestyle choices. Not idling is a simple way to help Canada reach the target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 6 percent below 1990 levels by the period 2008-2012.

Stick to the ten-second rule. Remember, idling wastes and pollutes and gives you nothing in return. Sounds like a proverb that John Heywood would approve.

RESOURCES - Vehicle idling is a great concern for many businesses and industries, particularly those that have fleets of vehicles for moving goods or people. The average long-haul truck idles away up to $1,790 in profits a year. Truckers can find more information at the Argonne National Laboratory web site at In January 2003, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a new voluntary effort to develop performance measures or goals to improve air quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, save fuel, and protect public health from ground freight carriers such as trucks and locomotives. SmartWay Transport aims to reduce as much as 18 million tonnes of carbon equivalent, and up to 200,000 tonnes of Nitrogen oxides (NOx) annually. These reductions will create fuel savings of up to 150 million barrels of oil annually. According to the EPA, reducing or eliminating prolonged idling of long-haul trucks can save up to 2,000 gallons per truck each year. Additional information on SmartWay Transport is available at

Some other good web sites about idling are: Climate Change Connection at; the Sierra Club Prairie Chapter at; and Climate Change Solutions at Some excellent tips about getting better gas mileage can be found at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's page at One of the tips points out drivers should not use their vehicles as storage facilities. Every 45 kg (100 pounds) of weight reduces fuel economy by two percent. A loaded roof rack can decrease fuel economy by five percent.

Michael Jessen is a Nelson consultant who specializes in helping companies and communities become more sustainable. He can be reached by telephone at 250-229-5632 or by e-mail at His business -- Zero Waste Services -- has an award-winning web site at

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