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The Negative Effects of Idling Your Car PDF Print Email


By Kyser Haines and Carole Upshur

Aug. 26, 2020: I always wondered why my Mom got so mad at all the cars running their engines at pick-up time in front of our house, which is across the street from my school in Pelham.

My Grandmom told me that one recent morning she watched a man in the driver's seat of a contractor's van parked in front of her co-op in Bronxville idle his engine for over fifteen minutes while looking at his cell phone. 

Last month on a pleasant, breezy afternoon, she saw several cars waiting to pick up kids from baseball practice along Midland Avenue near Scout Field in Bronxville. Windows were open in apartments on either side of the street at Alden Place and Midland Gardens, but these cars were locked up tight, idling their engines while the air conditioning hummed. 

My Grandmom went up to one car and asked the driver to shut his engine off, and he acted embarrassed and immediately complied. Sometimes she says she gets a scowl, but usually, the person does shut down the car.

What about waiting in line for 20 minutes for a car wash or the drive-through bank teller or McDonald's? What's wrong with these scenarios? 

My Grandmom said maybe we should find out. 

Laws About Idling

What we learned was, unfortunately, a lot. 

Idling means running your car engine without moving. It's illegal to idle your car for longer than three minutes in Westchester County ( §712.475 under Article V Traffic Regulations: - link doesn't work

Bronxville, Tuckahoe, Yonkers, and Scarsdale have local ordinances modeled after Westchester County's (although Pelham doesn't yet).

Here is the Bronxville idling ordinance.

§ 210-15: Operation of motor vehicle; idling of engine restricted.

A. No person shall cause or permit the engine of a motor vehicle, other than a legally authorized emergency motor vehicle, to idle for longer than three minutes while parking as defined in § 129 of the Vehicle and Traffic Law, standing as defined in § 145 of the Vehicle and Traffic Law, or stopping as defined in § 147 of the Vehicle and Traffic Law, unless the engine is used to operate a loading or unloading or processing device.

B. When the ambient temperature is in excess of 40º F., no person shall cause or permit the engine of a bus, as defined in § 104 of the Vehicle and Traffic Law, to idle while parking, standing or stopping.

Why Is Idling Your Engine Discouraged?

Idling is bad for the car's engine

According to the EPA, Popular Mechanics, many on-line car maintenance web sites, and Ford Motor Company, idling modern engines can harm them. Idling creates incomplete fuel combustion, which lowers oil viscosity and can cause residue to build up. Idling can burn more oil, run down the battery, and cause overheating. While many car mechanics say the degree of damage depends on the type of car and how old it is, it's a myth that engines in cars made in the last several decades need to idle to warm up and run better. 

Models from before around 1990 had less powerful batteries and starters than current models and needed time to warm up, which has led people to think that idling is better than turning off the engine. But the opposite is true of cars made in the last 25-30 years. In cold weather, while you don't want to rev up the engine immediately, it's better to drive slowly for 10 to 15 minutes than to idle the car for that long. 

You save gas

According to the Environmental Defense Fund, idling for as little as ten minutes a day uses up 35 gallons of gas a year for a small car. Idling for even ten seconds wastes more fuel than if you turned the car off and back on. One spark plug site says two minutes of idling uses the same amount of gas as driving a mile (

Idling is bad for your health

When your car is moving, the exhaust blows away, but when you're sitting still, it can accumulate in the car's interior. Be especially wary of running the engine in enclosed spaces like a garage, which can result in carbon monoxide poisoning. 

The emissions from a gasoline-powered car can exacerbate asthma or other respiratory issues. We have some of those issues in our family, and that's why we don't want a lot of car exhaust seeping into our school or house.

Studies have tracked emissions called particulate matter (PM), which can include dust, pollen, or smoke, as well as small, invisible particles. Many industrial processes and diesel and gasoline-powered vehicles emit PM and seem to be highly associated with negative human health effects.

A study from Lancet-Planetary Health, quoted by The New York Times in July 2020, followed the health of over 150,000 adults ages 35-70 years old for an average of 9 years in 21 countries around the world (countries included Canada, Sweden, and several Middle Eastern, South American, African, and Far East countries but not the U.S., and data from both urban and rural areas). 

They also tracked the level of PM in those countries. They found that for every increase of 10 micrograms of PM, there were 3% more heart attacks, 7% more strokes, and 3% more deaths. Overall the study found air pollution contributed to 14% of cardiovascular events and 8% of deaths. 

While 12 micrograms per cubic meter is considered safe, the average measurement reported in the study across the 21 countries was 47.5 micrograms.

The American Lung Association and a review in the journal Pediatrics say that children are more affected by air pollution than adults. This is because their lungs are smaller and are not fully developed until they're about six years old. 

Also, children tend to spend more time outside being active, taking in more ambient air. Exposure to pollution can limit lung development for a lifetime. 

Air pollution can also affect pregnancy, birth weight, and infant mortality. Some studies link high air pollution to neurodegenerative disease in children, and possibly autism.

A study in the journal Environmental Health quoted in the July/August 2020 edition of Monitor on Psychology notes that older adults ages 45-84 who live within about 150 yards of a major highway showed increases in dementia, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, and Alzheimer's disease.

That's why state and local governments issue air quality report warnings and monitor air pollution. Here in Westchester, you can find real-time ratings of local air pollution by clicking here or going to the New York State DEC Air Monitoring page. 

The monitors located closest to Bronxville and Pelham are in the New York Botanical Garden and White Plains.

Idling contributes to air pollution and climate change

Car emissions contain carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), volatile organic compounds, and nitrogen oxides, all of which contribute to air pollution. CO2 is a byproduct of burning gasoline and diesel and creates a heat-trapping effect as it builds up in the environment. Increasing CO2 in the atmosphere is a major driver of climate change.

The Green and Growing ( website that posts information and articles about the environment points out that shutting off your car for ten minutes keeps a pound of CO2 out of the atmosphere. 

While this may not sound like a lot, the Canadian government estimates that if each driver avoided idling for only three minutes a day, CO2 emissions would be reduced by 1.4 million tons annually in Canada. Over the last fifty years, more efficient engines, removing lead from gasoline, and catalytic converters have helped cars burn fuel more cleanly. However, they are still major contributors to climate change.

Diesel vehicles tend to cause even more health and environmental concerns since they give off more CO2 emissions than gasoline. That's why there are many more regulations directed at diesel-run trucks and school buses. Diesel engines also emit more particulate matter.

How Much Idling Is Too Much? 

If you are idling longer than ten seconds, you use more fuel than if you shut off your car and turn it back on.

The ten-second guideline has been recommended in Italy and France, although the government of Canada suggests that you shut off your car any time you will be parked for more than 60 seconds. In the U.S., the EPA recommends shutting off the engine after 30 seconds. 

Do You Idle The Engine To Keep The Heater Or A/C Going? 

Instead, why not dress appropriately for the weather? In the heat, you can open the windows and, when safe, step outside. In the cold, the car will stay warm for some time and will protect you from the wind, or you can pull on your coat! 

So, when you idle your car, aside from wasting money on gasoline, and perhaps damaging the engine, you are also undermining your health, increasing the likelihood of health problems in your community, further damaging the environment, and contributing to climate change. 

Shutting off the engine rather than idling your car is one of the easiest ways to protect human health and maintain the earth's ability to sustain life as we know it. I bet my Mom didn't even know all this!

Photo Courtesy of Carole Upshur. 

Note; Kyser Haines is a rising 5th grader in Pelham, NY, and a reporter for his school newspaper, Colonial TimesCarole Upshur is a member of the Bronxville Green Committee and Professor Emeritus, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Department of Family Medicine and Community Health. 

Editor's note: As a public service, MyhometownBronxville publishes articles from local institutions, officeholders, and individuals. MyhometownBronxville does not fact-check statements therein, and any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the thinking of its staff.



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Brian O'Keefe Architecture ("BOKA"),
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