Changing the world, one ignition at a time

Not five minutes ago, I stepped outside to take my dog into the snow for a pee break. (Him, not me.)

As soon as I stepped outside my front door, though, I was hit by a wave of nose-crinkling exhaust fumes generated by the car of our tenant. It was idling, unmanned, in my driveway, ostensibly warming up.

And it really pissed me off.

In this day and age, when global warming is such an important and well-known issue, it just seems irresponsible to turn on the car a few minutes early and let it pump pollutants into the atmosphere just to spare the driver the discomfort of having to drive with his gloves on for, gosh, as much as five minutes!

Perhaps if it was below zero, as it was a couple mornings ago, I could understand. I had to drive under such conditions, and it took half an hour for the windshield to defrost well enough for me to see out without craning my neck. But it’s above freezing outside right now. This is balmy for Vermont. 

But what can an environmentally-conscious citizen do about it, I wondered? Well, the most direct action would be to just turn off the engine myself and go about my life. But I have no right to impose my beliefs on others, and besides, that would just be a dickish thing to do.

We could make it against the law to idle your car when no one is in it. It’s not unprecedented – they have similar regulations in Switzerland – and would probably do some good in urban areas. But then again, people in cities aren’t too likely to leave their cars running unmanned because someone could steal them. In rural areas such as my hometown, on the other hand, police come along so rarely it could literally be weeks before an idling car was spotted and ticketed.And speeding is outlawed, but last time I checked, that doesn’t erase the problem, now does it?

We could equip cars with monitors that don’t allow them to remain on for more than 60 seconds unless there’s someone in the driver’s seat. The technology exists – many cars already have sensors in the passenger seat that deactivate the passenger airbag unless the occupant is over a certain weight threshold. (Not that it does much good for all those fat kids…) It would be easy to hook a similar device to the engine’s computer. Long term, this might be the best step. But by the time it could be made into law (or the automakers otherwise convinced), we might well be running fuel cell cars that emit only delicious water vapor.

In the short term, though, the best course of action is probably saying something to the people who idle their cars. Odds are good most of them will listen. Our tenant is a very nice, reasonable man, and I’m sure he’d be willing to comply if we asked him not to pre-heat his engine except during exceptionally cold days. But therein lies the problem. People hate confrontation.

Case in point: after fuming about the exhaust for several minutes outside, I passed my tenant on my way back into the house. Nice guy he is, he asked if we needed anything at the supermarket. No, I said, but thanks for asking. And that was all I said. 

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