Utahns are turning the key: 11 years in, the idle free campaign has caught hold

Catalyst Magazine – September 30, 2018

By Ashley Miller

Do you ever find yourself sitting in your car with the engine running? Sure, we are probably all guilty of idling from time to time. Idling, however, is one of the easiest behavioral changes people can make to improve our air.

Exhaust from idling vehicles contains particulate matter and other pollutants that are known to cause serious health problems. Vehicle exhaust makes up about half of the air pollution in Utah, and unnecessary idling contributes a significant amount of emissions into our air shed each day. Of course, there may be times when idling is necessary, but if we stop the unnecessary idling, our air quality and our health will benefit.

Last month marked the 11th anniversary of the Idle Free Governor’s declaration. For the past 11 years, every September begins the kick-off of the Idle Free season in Utah. The declaration encourages Utahns to refrain from idling whenever possible, especially at schools, businesses and neighborhoods where idling creates concentrated hot spots of pollution. The declaration also shows the immense support for Idle Free campaigns from local leadership. This year, 71 Utah mayors signed on to the declaration. These 71 mayors represent the majority of Utah’s population, roughly 76%, and all of the 17 mayors representing cities in Salt Lake County, along with Mayor Ben McAdams, have signed this year’s Idle Free Declaration.

Utah had the first Idle Free campaign in the nation, and it started in Salt Lake City. Salt Lake City was also the second city in Utah to adopt an Idle Free ordinance, passed in 2011. Now, eight cities, including Park City, Salt Lake City, Alta, Holladay, Logan, Murray, Sandy and Cottonwood Heights have idle free ordinances on the books.

But these ordinances didn’t come easily. In 2012, after Salt Lake City enacted its ordinance, the Utah State Legislature tried to strip the City (and any other city for that matter) of its authority to enact such an ordinance. The result was a state law on the books (that remains today) ensuring that any Idle Free ordinance in Utah will be toothless. It is written into any idling ordinance that an idling driver must be given three warnings before a citation, and the penalty can only be similar to that of a parking ticket. Even so, participating cities respect the power of education, viewing Idle Free ordinances as the best way to spread awareness of the issue to its citizens.

In addition to ordinances, other educational programs have played an important role in Idle Free. State organizations such as Utah Clean Cities and Breathe Utah have developed a unique idle free curriculum that reaches over 10,000 students each year. Local businesses are also clean air conscious with idle free policies, such as Kennecott’s haul truck idle management project and Intermountain Health’s Idle Free policy. Many other businesses erect Idle Free signs to encourage patrons to “turn the key.”

The real boots-on-the-ground champions of Idle Free are perhaps the Utahns most affected by idling vehicle exhaust: school kids. It’s usually the school kids that storm the city councils, urging them to take clean air seriously by starting with Idle Free. I personally witnessed several incredibly patient and well-behaved elementary schoolers waiting nearly five hours through a Sandy City Council meeting this past March to see their hard work pay off when the Council passed Sandy’s first Idle Free ordinance. It’s also difficult to say no to a child tapping on your window asking you to kindly turn your key.

One of the greatest success stories of Breathe Utah’s K-12 education program and Utah Clean Cities Idle Free campaign came recently when a Monte Vista Elementary school student was so concerned about idling and inspired to take action, she decided to do her STEM Fair project (science, technology, engineering and math) on the air quality around the parking lots, drop-off and pick-up locations at her school. She was able to show that air pollution was elevated in these areas. Her project won at the district level and she received second place at the BYU regional STEM Fair. Because of her findings she wanted to propose a solution to her school, which consisted of turning it into an idle free zone. Monte Vista Elementary then joined the growing list of Idle Free schools in Utah. Both Canyons and Granite School District are now 100% Idle Free.


What about Utah’s cold winter climate? Isn’t idling just an evil necessity of living with the greatest snow on earth? One clean air innovator said “no” to that question and came up with a solution that works in Utah.

Meet Joel Ewell, a real likable Utahn with a passion for solving problems. Ewell won the Bright Skies Clean Air Challenge two years ago for his invention, Idle Free Heat (see CATALYST Bright Ideas Reap Rewards, Feb. 2017). Idle Free Heat is a device that uses the heat from an engine block to provide heat for the cab without the engine running. His invention is perfect for school buses. After only 15 minutes of driving, a bus engine is hot enough to heat the passenger compartment of the bus for up to an hour. Ewell saw this as the perfect solution for a bus driver’s daily dilemma: keep warm with an idling engine, or turn the key and freeze while waiting for those precious passengers.

Idle Free Heat made its debut on two Granite School District buses as a pilot project in February, 2017. Ewell said at the time, “I tell my kids that some day every school bus will have Idle Free Heat. I’m hoping that in two years every school district in the state will have their fleets converted.” Fast-forward just one year: With a grant from the Utah Clean Air Partnership (UCAIR) and matching funds from Granite School District, Idle Free Heat is now installed on 40 Granite School District buses.

One idling school bus emits 81 grams of pollutants in just one hour. With all of the buses in Utah, that’s roughly 429 pounds of unnecessary pollution. Granite School District expects to eliminate hundreds of pounds of pollution each year by using the Idle Free Heat technology on these buses.

Air quality remains a complex issue. There is no “silver bullet” solution to solving Utah’s air pollution challenges. The Idle Free Campaign helps each of us to understand the importance of taking even small steps to help to clean the air. It helps us understand that each action we can take, however small it may seem, combines with the actions that others take, and when combined makes a big difference.  

Ashley Miller, J.D., is the program and policy director for Breathe Utah. She is a member of Utah’s Air Quality Policy Advisory Board and on the Salt Lake County Health Department Environmental Quality Advisory Commission.