STATE SENATOR THOMAS MCGEE may cochair the Transportation Committee, but he was just another mindless idler until some Lynn fifth-graders straightened him out. “I’d pull off the road to finish a phone call and leave the car running,” he says. “You just don’t think about it.” He wasn’t alone: Once you start looking for it, you notice engines idling away everywhere as drivers wait outside schools, check their appearance, or fiddle with their iPads. But it’s just a few minutes of waiting, and that’s no big deal, right?
Well, wrong. Even a minute of idling is bad for the environment. And if the tree hugger appeal doesn’t grab you, how about one for your wallet? An idling engine, after all, gets exactly zero miles per gallon. Oh, and let’s not forget that idling for more than five minutes in a parked car violates state law.
None of this is news to a fifth-grade class at Brickett Elementary School in Lynn. “It was extremely apparent to the students that the idling of cars in our community is excessive,” says their teacher, Donna Whalen. So last fall, she and her students developed the “Think Before You Idle” project to tackle the problem. The students did research, talked to experts, and sought to change the minds of anyone they could find, starting with their parents and teachers. “I used to idle, and so did a lot of my friends,” admits Whalen. “Now it’s amazing how people have come to the kids and say, ‘I just can’t idle anymore.’ ”
How cute, you’re probably thinking, a bunch of kids trying to save the planet; they probably went back to playing Wii after the schoolbell rang. Not these students. For one, they took the issue so seriously that they beat out some 350 classes around the country to win this year’s Disney Planet Challenge, a contest for local green initiatives (and scored an all-expense-paid trip to Disney World).
They also appeared before the Lynn City Council last winter and in May went to the State House to testify in favor of a bill to lower the current limit on idling from five minutes to three. “The students were not only successful in getting the bill filed, but in creating an awareness that just wasn’t there before,” says McGee; his committee passed it.
Unfortunately, even the current law alone doesn’t mean much. Boston, for example, has issued exactly zero tickets to drivers with cars idling for more than five minutes. Technical reasons, such as jurisdictional issues, are part of the reason, says Bryan Glascock, the city’s acting commissioner of inspectional services and former environment commissioner. He believes that education is more effective than enforcement. “Just as most people would no longer throw litter on the ground, we need the same kind of social peer pressure that it is not OK to fire up the engine and just sit there.”
That means correcting old beliefs that simply don’t hold up with modern cars. No, turning the car on and off doesn’t prematurely age your engine. No, it doesn’t need five minutes to warm up; 30 seconds is generally enough — and driving is the best way. And that claim about burning less gas idling than by restarting the engine? Wrong again. Idling for more than 10 seconds uses more gas than turning the car off and on.
The Lynn students know that a little thing like idling pollutes in a big way. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, for every hour you idle, your car creates about 10 pounds of carbon dioxide, a major contributor to climate change, as well as other pollutants. And it burns money: Idling uses about a half gallon of gas an hour. So if you idle 30 minutes over the course of a day, you’re wasting about 7.5 gallons of gas a month. That’s around 25 bucks.
OK. Maybe idling is understandable when it’s snowing and you’re waiting for Grandma to fill a prescription. But outside special circumstances like those? Just turn off the engine. Any smart fifth-grader will tell you that.