Do Yourself A Favor: ‘Turn Your Key, Be Idle Free!’

Brinley Wilson, Utah Clean Cities

What Is Idling? 

Idling is running a vehicle’s propulsion engine when the vehicle isn’t moving. While idling can be difficult to avoid or even necessary for some vehicles, such as to provide a source of power for primarily on-duty police vehicles or semi-truck drivers, most idling is wasteful and avoidable. 


Who Cares? We Do and So Should You!  

You may be wondering why the minimal act of turning your key to be idle free matters. Simply put, idling threatens environmental and community health, causes engine wear leading to unnecessary expenses, produces significant pollution and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and is sometimes unlawful. 

While you might think that idling in the carpool line, at the drive-thru window or in your driveway during a harsh winter’s day can’t do much harm and is rather advantageous for your vehicle, you are sorely mistaken. 

Idling often occurs in small moments, but let us imagine the cumulative impact of idling. Consider that idling in the U.S. uses more than 6 billion gallons of fuel at a cost of more than $20 billion to consumers and businesses per year.

According to Argonne National Laboratory research: 

  • Idling vehicles use more fuel than does restarting your car
  • Restarting your vehicle will not wear out the started
  • Idling your vehicle wastes about 0.3 gal/h and a large truck about 1 gal/h. 
  • Each gallon of fuel burned emits about 20 lb. of carbon dioxide
  • Idling is illegal in some areas and can result in substantial fines


The Winter Myth 

One of the most circulated myths about idling is that you must warm your vehicle engine before driving it. The truth is that on cold winter days, an engine can circulate oil throughout the engine in 30 seconds, and excessive idling can actually lead to damage to either the engine or exhaust system. 

The Department of Energy says, “Avoid idling. Think about it — idling gets you 0 miles per gallon. The best way to warm up a vehicle is to drive it. No more than 30 seconds of idling on winter days is needed. Anything more simply wastes fuel and increases emissions.”

Furthermore, the EPA states that “When a car idles for more than 30 seconds, it has several negative effects, such as increasing air pollution unnecessarily, wasting fuel and money, and causing excessive wear or even damaging a car’s engine components, including cylinders, spark plugs, and the exhaust system. Contrary to popular belief, idling isn’t an effective way to warm up most car engines. Today’s automobile manufacturers recommend driving off right away and urge that drivers wait no more than 30 seconds to begin driving, even on the coldest days.”


Idling Impacts Community Health 

As mentioned, each gallon of fuel burned emits about 20 lbs. of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Moreover, tailpipe emissions contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone. This pollution produces adverse effects on our health and environment. And since children are closer to the tailpipe, have a faster breathing rate and have developing lungs, they are more vulnerable to pollution than adults. This can lead to a development in health complications throughout a child’s life. When you choose to “Turn Your Key, Be Idle Free,’ you choose to help children breathe easier and cleaner air.


Location, Location, Location

Depending on your location, vehicle type/weight, fuel type and outside temperature, idling may be illegal. 

In Utah, vehicle exhaust makes up over 50% of the air pollution. The unnecessary idling of cars and buses contribute a significant amount of emissions released into the air each day.

Salt Lake City’s Idle Free Ordinance prohibits unnecessary vehicle idling over two minutes within city limits. The ordinance is enforceable on public property and private property open to the public (i.e. drive-through windows and parking lots). Three warnings will be issued before any fines are levied. Once a fine is issued, the traditional parking fee structure applies:

  • Paid in less than 10 days – $15
  • 11 to 20 days – $55
  • 21 to 30 days – $85
  • 31 to 40 days – $125

Exemptions to the city’s Idle Free Ordinance can be found at slc.gov. 

Utah Clean Cities wants to encourage and educate communities on what the individual can do about idling. 

We highly recommend being aware and educating other drivers about the effects of idling. 

If you find yourself in an unmoving vehicle, be sure to turn the engine off, and when possible, use waiting rooms at depots and assembly areas instead of idling. 

Engage with community leaders and members by advocating for an idling reduction policy, ask drivers to pledge to reduce idling, host an idling reduction workshop or driver training sessions and provide material to the community as a reminder not to idle. Idle Free materials including Idle Free packets, brochures, posters, cards and stickers are provided by UCC, available here.