Should local authorities have more power to fine motorists who leave their engines on when parked?

You’ve probably seen it many times:

1 – A driver sitting next to your neighbour’s house for 10 minutes, waiting for a friend to get ready.

2 – A parent sitting outside a school 20 minutes before the closing bell.

3– A spouse sitting outside a GP surgery car park for 30 minutes, waiting for their other half to come back from an appointment that was 30 minutes late.

What do all three have in common? They all leave their car engines on the whole time – oblivious to the environmental impacts this has on those around them.

Why do people idle when they really don’t need to?

Well, first of all, let’s think of three plausible reasons why none of these drivers should have been idling in the first place.

Why does driver 1 leave their engine on if they know their friend usually takes a long time to get ready?

Why does driver 2 leave their engine on if they know the closing bell isn’t for 20 minutes?

And why does driver 3 leave their engine on even though they’ve already received a text from their other half that the appointment is delayed by 30 minutes?

Well, it’s not always easy to understand why some people idle. One thing is for sure: these drivers are unaware of the impact their behaviour has on those around them.

Sadly, situations like the above still occur every day, all over the country.

But councils are taking action

In 2017, Westminster Council introduced an £80 fine for drivers who leave their cars idling.

The campaign – known as #DontBeidle – gives council air marshals the power to issue a PCN to members of the public, taxis and delivery drivers who refuse to turn off their engines when pulling over. The council has even given people the opportunity to volunteer as Air Quality Champions to motivate drivers to switch off their engines, educate them about air pollution, and use social media to spread the #DontBeIdle message far and wide.

Similar measures have been introduced by Lambeth Council, which started issuing £20 fines to idling drivers from May 18th this year – when the first lockdown was still in effect. 

Previous data showed that from February 2018 to September 2019, Lambeth Council’s wardens asked 2,044 drivers to switch off their engines. 98.7% (2,017) of those drivers complied, which meant only 27 refused.

It’s all about pollution

Westminster, which has recorded some of the worst air pollution in Europe, has also committed to meeting air quality guidelines set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). These exceed the targets set by UK law because they call for a PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) air quality target of 10 g/m3 or less. 

Westminster Council, in an email sent to The Independent in May 2019, referred to research which showed that an average idling vehicle emits enough harmful emissions to fill 150 balloons in just one minute.

However, earlier this year, MPs voted against enshrining WHO guidelines into UK law. MP Rebecca Pow of the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) argued that that while the government wanted to ‘set targets that are ambitious’, it was not committed to a legally binding target that might not be economically viable or practically deliverable.

But one big car manufacturer has already shown us just how dangerous idling is for the air we breathe

On October 8th, to mark Clean Air Day, Renault commissioned a custom lollipop to help raise awareness of the impact of idling on air quality. The campaign – known as ‘Be Mindful, Don’t Idle’ – was aimed at parents and guardians who leave their engines on during the school run.

On one side of the lollipop was the concentration of PM2.5 in the air – available thanks to the in-built air sensor technology. On the other side the information was presented in layman’s terms; the quality of the air was simply rated as ‘Good’, ‘Okay’ or ‘Poor’ – so parents, guardians and children could understand what they were breathing in as they walked to the school gates.

More than a quarter of parents/guardians admit to idling during the school run    

As part of its campaign, Renault published research of over 4,000 school run parents and motorists – and the results were interesting to say the least. 

27.2% admitted to leaving their engines on during the school run, despite dangerously high levels of pollution being recorded in more than 8,500 nurseries, schools and colleges across England, Wales and Scotland. Of those who idled, some said they only left their engines on for ‘a short while’, while others wanted to keep their air-conditioning or heater on.

However, it’s not as simple as this

Many parents and guardians said they idled because they were unable to find a parking space. This problem was more pronounced in urban locations, where 60.9% (of those who idled) did so because of a lack of parking. This compares to just 27.6% in suburban areas and only 11.5% in rural areas. 

About half (50.1%) of those who admit to idling lived in urban areas, compared to just 12% in rural areas.

But one school has had enough of idling

Like many schools up and down the country, Thelwall Junior School in Warrington, between Liverpool and Manchester, experiences a lot of congestion during the school run. To prevent drivers from stopping outside the school, Warrington Borough Council is enforcing a new ‘no stopping rule’ between 8am and 5pm on weekdays. Under the new rules, vehicles will be prohibited from stopping outside the school entrance to help promote cycling and walking as alternative modes of travel.

An anti-idling initiative wins funding from another council

UK charity Living Streets has come up with an anti-idling toolkit to help people put a stop to idling engines in their neighbourhoods. The guide, supported by the British Lung Foundation, refers to recent research indicating that most (60%) of parents worry about the effect that air pollution has on their children’s health. In Bath, in 2018,  a Living Streets Local Group received funding from the local council to help reduce idling in the Roman city – and the group is eager to target other areas such as schools and hospitals.

Encouraging drivers to stop idling can also benefit them financially, too.

Recent research has shown that turning your car off is more efficient than keeping your engine on for more than 10 seconds. Patricia Weikersheimer from the Argonne National Laboratory in the U.S says that drivers should turn off their engines if they have to stop at places like drive-throughs or train crossings (where they’ll typically wait a lot longer than 10 seconds). Clearly, becoming more fuel efficient means drivers use less fuel, so that should translate into financial savings (even if they might seem negligible in the short term).

So how can motorists stop idling?

The RAC refers to the Highway Code, which states that when a vehicle is likely to remain stationary for more than a couple of minutes, the motorist should apply the parking brake and switch the engine off to reduce pollution (both environmental and  noise pollution).

Three points to consider: 

1 – Anticipate how long you may be stationary

Think back to the three examples we mentioned earlier. Is this traffic jam going on for miles? Does your friend usually take forever to get ready? Has the person you’re picking up already told you they’re running late? 

2 – Keep your vehicle’s ‘stop-start system on if you have one

Today, many vehicles are built with ‘stop-start- systems that switch your engine off automatically. You can switch this off manually – but the RAC advises you to keep it on (there is no risk to your vehicle).

3 –  If your vehicle doesn’t have ‘stop-start’, try to avoid turning your engine on and off repeatedly. 

Vehicles with batteries that are five or more years old may have problems if they are started too frequently in a very short time period.

And what about the bigger picture?
Do MPs support tougher enforcement measures to reduce pollution on our roads?

Yes – there does appear to be considerable cross-party support.

In a recent House of Commons debate on pollution, Labour MP for Ealing Central and Acton, Dr Rupa Huq, expressed concerns about the ‘unacceptably high levels of pollution’ in London and how pedestrians ‘often feel at the bottom of the food chain’.  However, she urged a ‘softly-softly approach’ –  in which motorists have a chance to get used to a new scheme before heavy fines are introduced. She referred to Ealing, west London, where a new scheme that the council had introduced did not involve any fines initially.

David Simmons, Conservative MP for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, echoed this sentiment, urging the Government to enable councils to have ‘sufficiently meaningful’ enforcement powers that would ensure that people who ‘behave in an antisocial way by idling engines near schools, for example, receive a penalty commensurate with the damage they are causing to the local environment, children and other nearby pedestrians.

The move to stricter enforcement has also received support from Michael Gove, the former Environment Secretary, who in 2019 said that there was still much more to be done to ‘protect people from harmful air pollution’.

And what about the Government’s commitment to tackling pollution and combating climate change in general?

The Prime, Minister Boris Johnson, is expected to bring forward the UK-wide ban on internal combustion engines from 2040 to 2030, in line with a new post-Covid recovery plan.

Johnson – who took office a day before the UK recorded its hottest day ever – had generally voted against measures to prevent climate change before moving to Number 10. This is according to TheyWorkForYou, a charity which uses data and information from official parliamentary sources to help people understand how their MPs vote on different issues.

However, in September, Mr Johnson expressed his desire to make the UK ‘the Saudi Arabia of wind power’, saying the country should embrace new technologies to deliver on its goal of net zero emissions by 2050.

The Government says it is also committed to helping developing countries tackle climate change

In November, Mr Johnson appointed Anne-Marie Trevelyan as the UK’s International Champion on Adaptation and Resilience for the COP26 Presidency. COP26 is the next United Nations Climate Change Conference, scheduled to take place in November 2021 in Glasgow.

In a press release issued on November 7th, the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office stressed that developing countries are ‘particularly vulnerable to climate change’ and adverse events such as floods, wildfires and droughts.

On climate change, Johnson is much more aligned with Biden than Trump

As America awaits the inauguration of President-elect Biden in January, it’s worth remembering that Boris Johnson was highly critical of Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Back in 2017, when he was Foreign Secretary, he said the UK Government, led by Theresa May at the time, was lobbying the U.S. ‘at all levels’ to take climate change ‘extremely seriously’. 

This month, soon after media organisations confirmed that Biden had won, Johnson contacted the President-elect to reiterate the importance of a strong UK-US partnership against climate change.  

I look forward to working with president Biden and his team on a lot of crucial stuff for us in the weeks and months ahead: tackling climate change, trade, international security,’ he said’.

The future

Mr Johnson has set himself an ambitious goal of banning the internal combustion engine in just over nine years. If he can deliver on this, pollution on the UK’s roads could be cut significantly – assuming the ‘lifetime’ emissions from electric cars are up to 70% lower than the petrol-fuelled cars.

In the meantime, the Government and local authorities will need to come up with creative solutions to combating idling and congestion – which continue to contribute to dangerously high levels of pollution in so many of our communities.

Ultimately, though, the power to stop idling lies with motorists. They must do their bit to help reduce pollution so that all of us have the opportunity to breathe in cleaner, safer air.

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