The world has an idling problem — Utah researchers are trying to fix it

A girl is dropped off next to a sign reminding people to turn off their vehicles while they’re parked. – Vincent Horiuchi

SALT LAKE CITY — In the middle of a historically active wildfire season — where large amounts of carbon dioxide, brown and black carbon and ozone are pouring into the atmosphere — the Utah Clean Cities Coalition wants to remind people that there is something they can do to help keep the air clean.

And it only takes a few seconds.

Turning off the ignition of an idle car is a simple act with potentially large benefits, said Tammie Bostick, the executive director of the coalition. It is a message she hopes to share, particularly in the month of September, which marks the 13th anniversary of the Idle Free Declaration issued by the Utah governor.

The document acknowledges the hazards of idling and applauds Utahns’ efforts to curtail the practice. Still, idling remains a prominent issue worldwide.

Six billion gallons of fuel are wasted each year due to vehicle idling, and personal vehicles release around 30 million tons of carbon dioxide while doing so, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

“On average, people spend about 7% of their time idling,” said Kerry Kelly, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Utah. “And the other thing that is not good about idling is that it wastes fuel, one, and then, two, your car’s emission control system does not work optimally while it’s idling.”

To draw attention to the issue, more than 70 Utah mayors have signed their support of idle-free practices, and 10 Utah cities have idle free ordinances.

A local research team — of which Kelly is a part — is going even further to stop the practice.

A novel idea gains funding

The real-time speed limit displays — the ones that tell people how fast they’re going — are effective, according to researchers, but probably not for the reasons most think.

“One of the major reasons is they show you that you’re speeding in a way that others can see you’re being shown that you’re speeding, so it’s a violation of what’s called social norm,” Kelly said. “In my terms, it is maybe a little bit of peer pressure to make good choices.”

The signs started Kelly thinking, along with her fellow researcher Gregory Madden, a USU professor in the psychology department. What if they were to do something similar for idling?

Idle free campaigns have existed for years and adding a dynamic component to try and change people’s behavior is an exciting new possibility, previously not possible due to a lack of technology. If the scientists’ hypothesis is correct, and these signs produce results similar to those of dynamic speed signs, they could have a lasting impact.

“Long-term studies of those signs have looked at, you know, to what extent do they reduce accidents and reduce speeding and those kinds of things,” Madden said. “And the effect seems to last as long as those signs are up. So it’s not just a little temporary effect that people realize, ‘Hey, I’m not going to get a ticket here, and therefore I can start speeding again.’ It doesn’t work that way. It really does produce a long-term effect.”

So the pair began to plan out what analogous but adapted signs might look like, and their research group recently received a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to help fund the project.

The researchers will start small, engineering four signs that will be installed in hospitals’ and schools’ parking lots in both Cache and Salt Lake counties for the pilot program. They picked the spots intentionally, to help protect some of the most vulnerable people in society, Kelly said.

Children stand closer in height to tailpipes than adults, which leaves them more susceptible to pollution from the exhausts of cars. Children’s breathing rates are also generally higher than those of adults.

As a bonus, Kelly hopes that students at schools where signs are implemented can get involved in taking readings from the pollution sensors and helping analyze the data, thus giving them a taste of STEM work.

As for hospitals, patients often leave in wheelchairs — which, again, leaves them closer to tailpipes — and some are also compromised in ways that make them more susceptible to pollution, Kelly said.

The signs themselves will consist of a package of sensors that will monitor pollutants such as ozone, particulate matter, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. When pollutants in a certain area reach dangerous levels, the displays will warn drivers to turn off their vehicles.

The team will have to factor weather into readings too, as they don’t want a stray gust of wind to throw off results and make it seem like there’s less idling than there actually is.

The researchers also plan to implement a thermal imaging technology that will allow them to count the number of idling cars in a given space.

“The challenge is to get good quality, low-cost sensors,” Kelly said. The team is planning to use sensors developed by the University of Utah, and Kelly anticipates each costing between $300-500.

The LED displays will be the most expensive part of the operation. Each costs around $5,000.

The team hopes to develop signs that are portable, so they could be moved to areas where large amounts of idling are expected. Kelly also hopes that school LEDs could be rigged to display idling warnings during drop-off and pickup times.

“There have been a lot of anti-idling campaigns and a lot of messaging, but I’m not aware of anyone ever attempting to do this type of dynamic feedback,” Kelly said.

The signs are still being engineered, which will take months, according to Kelly, but their eventual impact could extend much further than just a couple schools and hospitals.

“It’s really important for your health, the health of your community and especially the health of vulnerable people that are in the area of folks are idling. It is really important for worker health and safety,” she said.

Already, Madden — who has researched behavioral economics for years — is crafting messages for the displays that he believes will cause people to turn their parked cars off.

“Is it going to solve all the pollution problems in Salt Lake City? Unfortunately, no, it is not,” he said. “But is it going to make a significant dent for vulnerable populations, this project? Yeah, I think we can probably do that. I’m real optimistic about our chances with this project.”

A bad reputation

The Beehive State’s reputation for poor air quality is due to a few primary factors, Kelly said. First is wintertime air pollution that gets trapped in Utah’s valleys, underneath layers of warm air that act as a lid and lead to build up of fine particulate matter.

“That is kind of what we are known for in terms of bad air quality,” Kelly said.

Utah also has elevated levels of ozone during the summer months because of its warm temperatures and elevation. The Uinta Basin experiences increased levels of ozone in the winter as well, precipitated by stagnant air and emissions. Like fine particulate matter, high levels of ozone can harm health.

“It is sort of like sunburning your lungs,” Kelly said. “And so if you couple something like ozone with elevated levels of particulate matter, that is kind of a double-whammy in terms of your health.”

Wildfire smoke in the summer months only exacerbates Utah’s air quality problems. The state is downwind of California and has wildfires of its own to combat.

“Combustion is a big source of particulate matter, and particulate matter is one of the key drivers of adverse health effects. Probably thousands of studies have linked elevated levels of fine particulate matter to increases in heart attack, lung disease, premature death,” Kelly said. “When you’re combusting a solid material, like wood, and you’re doing it in a pretty inefficient way, like burning forests, you’re going to generate a lot of particulate matter and a lot of volatile organic compounds.”