In no-idling zones, police are now watching

No Idling Signs Authorities in New York City enforce their idling laws with exceptionally stiff fines – and in such a densely populated city, it can be hard to blame them.

"I'm under the impression that I can idle for up to five minutes in New York City," said a friend of mine, E, when he heard the topic of my research. E, a musician, often idles his aging gray Toyota hatchback while loading and unloading drum kits, amps, microphones, and other equipment outside venues and recording studios. "Is that correct?"

E is, in fact, not correct: in New York City, the limit for idling is three minutes. But before I can respond, he continues, musing: "Not that it really matters, since nobody pays attention to those laws anyway."

Historically, this may have been true: while many U.S. municipalities have had some sort of anti-idling law since the 1970s, neither drivers nor police have typically paid them much mind. But that's beginning to change.

Today, ample research on the environmental and public health risks of engine exhaust has made idling a paramount concern. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that stationary school buses, big rigs, and cars spew out a total of 11 million tons of carbon dioxide, 200,000 tons of nitrous dioxides, and 5,000 tons of particulate matter each year. In New York City—where parking scarcity has made inveterate idlers of millions—we would need to plant a forest the area of Manhattan each year just to offset annual idling emissions, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

So governments are beginning to crack down. Part or all of at least 28 different U.S. states, as well as the District of Columbia, now have some idling regulation on the books. Time limits range from zero tolerance (in some residential Minneapolis neighborhoods) to a lax 15 minutes (in Atlanta), with accompanying fines of $25 to $500.California, perhaps unsurprisingly, boasts the most comprehensive anti-idling regime; its legislation even requires all post-2008 commercial truck engines to automatically shut themselves off after five minutes of idling. The state's stringent regulations have inspired harsh criticisms on online trucker forums: "[W]hat I wonder about this new idling law is who in gods (sic) green earth thinks this stuff up… And where are the driver's rights here?" reads one 2008 comment on "Are there any Constitutional rights being violated[?]" (Answer: no).

Other states have focused anti-idling efforts on school zones. In the past decade, Arizona, California, Connecticut, New York, and North Carolina have all launched such initiatives, which require drivers to turn off buses upon reaching schools and park a certain number of feet from schools' air-intake systems; they also call for schools to post clear signage alerting all drivers—including parents and administrators—to the new "idle-free zones."

Whether passing through California, picking up children from school, or awaiting a parking space in Chicago, American drivers should consider cutting their engines. Unlike in the 1970s, people are now paying attention. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg has ordered traffic police to crack down on idlers. In Mountain Village, Colorado, police aren't the only ones watching: after five minutes, concerned citizens may ticket violators themselves. Idlers, beware.


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