Growing up in a cold, Canadian climate you get used to morning radio shows doling out cheerful tidbits like wind chill factors and frostbite warnings in between upbeat tunes to help you start the day. When winter is six months of the year and feels like nine, you will do just about anything to beat the cold. One of these time-honored traditions is what I used to call the “defrost dash” — a heroic run in one’s haphazardly flung-on coat or bathrobe to the car parked out front in order to start the engine 10 minutes before actual departure.
Leaving the engine running and the heat and defrost blasting, one can enjoy the last few bites of breakfast knowing the car will be toasty warm and good to go when it’s time to leave. Now, I admit that there were days when this extra engine running was a necessity and not doing so would have meant, at best, 15 agonizing minutes scraping ice from the windshield with numb fingers or, at worst, not being able to clear the windshield at all. Even then though, it bothered me. The view of the car just sitting there, the exhaust spewing light grayish fumes into the air, looked wasteful and dirty. I hadn’t yet declared myself an “environmentalist” and the term “climate change” hadn’t been coined but I’m pretty sure the sight of those neighborhood cars prompted one of my first, early utterances of the question, “Isn’t that bad for the environment?”
It’s only fair to admit here that I am far from perfect in my attempt at an eco-friendly lifestyle; the carbon footprint of a life involving frequent airline travel, Los Angeles traffic and air conditioning sadly still outweighs my “green” choices. That, however, doesn’t mean the choices I do make are meaningless. Almost every leader of any great movement in history has probably at some point credited the baby steps, the individual choices we make, however small they may seem at the time, with creating the momentum that led to extraordinary change. And so I keep up with the “little things” and try to continually add to the list: turning off the light when I leave a room, washing my clothes in short cycles of cold water, turning off the faucet while I brush my teeth, and a host of other habits that are proven to help preserve our environment. Which brings me back to those neighborhood cars.
I could have started this piece by just giving you the facts, telling you that leaving an engine running unnecessarily for only two minutes burns the gas equivalent of one mile of driving and in the U.S. alone costs Americans about $3.6 billion of their hard earned dollars; that this habit of ours is releasing a million pounds of climate-altering carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every second. I could have debunked myths like this one: Leaving the car running is better than turning off and restarting the engine. Incorrect! Fuel wise, starting a car is equal to only 10 seconds of letting it run so if the car’s going to be motionless for more than 10 seconds, turn off the engine.
But I’m a storyteller by trade and so that approach didn’t appeal to me. I’d rather paint an image (a cold winter day and a dirty exhaust pipe) and then give you a catchy name to go with it, like, "Idling." Idling is how environmentalists refer to that nasty habit of leaving your engine running when the car is not in motion. Waiting for someone outside their house or workplace with the car on equals idling. Keeping the car running so you have heat or A/C while you text from your parking spot equals idling. Finishing emails in the parking lot with the engine going equals — you guessed it — idling.
Not only is this all too common habit of ours devastating to the environment, it’s also so easy to change. Sometimes we get lucky and really bad problems come with really easy solutions: Turn off the engine while you’re waiting for someone or using your cell phone. If it gets too hot, get out of the car. If it gets too cold, duck into a nearby building to warm up. Line at the valet or drive-thru really slow? Turn off the car and wait until you can actually drive forward an entire car length or two before turning it back on to pull up. With a little conscious effort we can end this damaging habit right now and take one more crucial baby step towards cleaner air and a healthier environment.
And for my friends up north still living through bad winters — turns out 30 seconds after you turn on the car, driving is the best way to warm up the engine. So, bundle up for a bit of cold and as soon as you can see out the windshield start driving to your destination, it’ll only be cold for that first few minutes. You do that, and I’ll continue not dropping my A/C below 76 degrees here in Los Angeles even on the hottest days, and believe me, they’re only getting hotter.
Related on MNN: Is it better to idle or turn off your car?