Engine idling refers to leaving a vehicle’s engine running while it’s stationary for a couple of minutes or so, for example, when waiting for children coming out of school, waiting for someone at a station, or when parked outside a business or home.
It’s not surprising that when it is very hot you want the air conditioning on and when it is cold and damp you want to keep warm.
The trouble is, every time we leave a vehicle’s engine running, we’re creating a pocket of air pollution by pouring harmful gases into the air, like carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and hydrocarbons.
It’s easy to feel that you’re protecting yourself or your child from air pollution by driving, rather than walking or cycling, but it’s no safer inside the car. The British Lung Foundation says:
“Even when you’re in your car, you and your children can breathe in polluted air – from traffic fumes, petrol vapour, tobacco smoke and chemicals. In fact, air pollution levels can often be higher inside your car than outside.”
Several studies have shown that passengers inside a vehicle can be exposed to significantly higher levels of air pollution than pedestrians and cyclists nearby. This happens because toxic chemicals from vehicle exhausts can pass straight through a vehicle’s air filter and build up inside the vehicle. For example, a study by Enviro Technology from 2016 found that levels of nitrogen dioxide were on average 21% higher inside their test vehicle with the windows shut than on the road outside.
A few years ago, the Healthy Air Campaign teamed up with King’s College London, Camden Council and London cyclist, Vivienne Westwood, to see what travel options are the healthiest: https://www.healthyair.org.uk/healthiest-transport-option-video/. They were surprised to find that highest level of air pollution was experienced by the person inside a car, not cyclist / walkers. – “In fact, the car driver was exposed to more than twice the amount of air pollution as the person walking the same busy route, and almost eight times more pollution than the cyclist.”
In their report “Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution”, the Royal College of Physicians estimate that 40,000 deaths a year in the UK are linked to air pollution – that’s more than half the deaths from Covid so far this year (December 2020). The report deals with other causes of outdoor air pollution, as well as engine idling.
This type of air pollution is also linked to serious illnesses like heart attacks, strokes and respiratory diseases, and harms children’s development, particularly of their lungs
And this all means that idling is also bad for the our National Health Service – the serious health effects it causes cost the NHS millions of pounds every year.
Other problems with leaving your engine running are that it wastes fuel and money; and in some cases, it’s illegal; Rule 123 of The Highway Code states: “You MUST NOT leave a parked vehicle unattended with the engine running or leave a vehicle engine running unnecessarily while that vehicle is stationary on a public road. Generally, if the vehicle is stationary and is likely to remain so for more than a couple of minutes, you should apply the parking brake and switch off the engine to reduce emissions and noise pollution.”
Local authorities can issue fixed penalties for engine idling when stationary. At the moment they’re only likely to do this if a motorist refuses to switch off their engine off when asked to do so by an authorised person, but the Department for Transport is considering tougher powers to try to stop unnecessary air pollution. In particular, they want to cut down the amount of toxic air pollution that forms outside schools when a number of cars are leaving their engines running.
A year or so ago, South Beds Friends of the Earth put up gauges to measure air pollution at various locations around town where we thought pollution was high – none of them was actually over the statutory limit, but several were very close to it during busy times.
We also asked Leighton-Linslade Town Council to consider putting up a reminder about engine idling on its electronic news boards – which they’ve done:
For more information:
A recent feature on various issues around engine idling: https://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/cars/article-8734959/Quarter-parents-leave-car-engines-idling-outside-schools.html
That Royal College of Physicians report on air pollution and why it’s bad for you: : https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/projects/outputs/every-breath-we-take-lifelong-impact-air-pollution
And more on reducing emissions from cars, with more technical information about the effects of stopping and starting engines: https://www.rac.co.uk/drive/advice/emissions/11-ways-to-reduce-your-car-emissions/
Information from the government, which is where we found the information that an idling engine can produce enough toxic emissions to fill 150 balloons: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/idling-drivers-could-face-higher-fines-under-new-government-crackdown