That “Idle-Free” Thing: Change is in the Air

By Deborah Burney-Sigman Ph.D., Guest Blogger

Student by Idle Free sign
This student at Monte Verde Elementary who took second place in BYU STEM Fair for her research into parking-lot idling. Photo credit: Alice Rasmussen, Jordan School District.

DEQ invites guest bloggers to share their thoughts on issues that impact our environment. We appreciate their insights and the opportunity to broaden the conversation with others in the community.

On a chilly fall weekday, my running group winced at the acrid odor before we turned the corner. Sure enough, a youngish driver was in an oldish car, engine going, listening to music while he waited.

Cars are a person’s turf. Most days, I’d as soon stick my hand in a strange dog’s kennel as knock on somebody’s car window. But this “idling thing’—well, it’s important.

Utah residents have made great strides in recent years to change their perception of idling. Rather than simply seeing it as a normal part of driving, many people now realize that the pollution from idling is not only unnecessary but also harmful to our health and air quality. This September will mark the 11th   Idle-Free Awareness Month in Utah.

It’s been a real team effort. Utah Clean Cities gathered signatures from town and city mayors throughout the state supporting the Governor’s declaration. Companies like Rio Tinto and Intermountain Health created idle-free policies and developed employee training on idle-free practices. Park City and the City of Alta have been officially idle-free for eight years. Salt Lake City passed a no-idling ordinance seven years ago. Holladay was next, followed by Logan, Murray City, South Salt Lake, with Sandy City and Cottonwood Heights joining in just this winter.

But let’s give credit to the idle-free pioneers. In 2006, Patti White’s sixth graders at Morningside Elementary learned about air pollution, decided to do something, and started Utah’s first Idle-Free campaign. Back then the kids sang their way to the State Capitol. They made signs and flyers for drivers at their school and inspired a movement. “Turn your key” signs have been spreading school by school since 2007. And the movement has moved beyond singing and sign for many students. A sixth grader at Monte Vista Elementary in Alicia Rasmussen’s class took second place in the Brigham Young University (BYU)  STEM Fair this spring with her parking-lot idling research project — a project she designed after Breathe Utah’s Air Aware class visit. Utah State University now runs an annual high school poster contest awarding artistic and marketing talent. The kids are on board with the idle-free movement in a big way.

Idle Free winning poster
Conservice award-winning idle-free poster. Photo credit: Ed Stafford, Utah State University

Idling is still the most obvious and easy way to help the air. So simple: turn the car off when it doesn’t need to be on. On the other hand, so many people Still. Just. Idle.

Maybe it was the gorgeous morning and the great run, but I waved cheerily to the idling young man, who, confused, rolled down his window. “Would you mind too terribly turning off your motor for now? I hope it’s not a problem. The exhaust is pretty strong out here.”

“Oh…is that that idling thing? Oh…I’m sor– I mean, I was just waiting…”

(Yes, it’s that idling thing.)

“Hey, yeah, no, I get it. It’s totally fine.” (His turf).  “But it would be so great of you. Thank you so much.” The engine turned off.

I sincerely hope the encounter made an ally and not an enemy.

More and more cars are hybrids or electric, which are inherently idle-free. Newest gasoline cars have stop/start software so the engine shuts off when you hit the brake and restarts when you lift your foot again, and their fuel savings are in the 5 – 10 percent range.

Idlers are surrounded. The goal has always been to phase out idling, to make it weird or rude instead of normal. For something so simple, it’s been a really tough sell. But car technology is closing in, and our kids have our backs on this.

Driver’s Ed in Utah is promoting Idle-Free — check out this new video!
Want to help promote “Be Idle-Free?”  Utah Clean Cities has brochures, card, and posters you can download and print and distribute at your school. Breathe Utah has developed supplemental idle-free resources, including an air-quality curriculum guide for schools. Salt Lake City has an order form you can complete to receive an Idle-Free sign for your home or business. And if you’ve been wanting to distribute some of those cool Idle-Free car decals for your car — or the neighbors idling in their driveways — visit Utah Clean Cities to purchase Idle-Free materials. Together we can raise awareness about Idle-Free!
Deborah Burney-Sigman

 I am an 18-year inhabitant of this state, but I’m still working toward my Utahn card. I am homesteader enough to make two children and recruit a few parents here. Once upon a time, I was from San Francisco, trained in molecular biology at UC Santa Cruz and MIT, and moved to Salt Lake City with my husband Matt,  who is a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Utah. I helped found Breathe Utah in 2010.