Idling: what’s the big deal?

By Jennifer Humphries

On New Year’s Day my husband and I took a walk through the neighbourhood. We strolled past a parked BMW SUV. It was idling. Inside, the driver, eyes closed, leaned forward against the steering wheel while the passenger tapped on her smartphone. The outside temperature was about 1 C – cold but not frigid. Presumably they wanted to stay warm while waiting for someone or something. For 20 minutes or so, their car would probably have been warm enough for comfort without running it. But despite the moderate weather and being dressed in winter wear, they idled.

Most likely you’ve seen more egregious cases of idling, maybe at a construction site, where truck drivers often idle for extended periods – sometimes while eating lunch, sometimes for no apparent reason. Even municipal vehicles can be seen idling, though Yan St-Louis, the city’s director of fleet services, states that the city is using technology and education to try to reduce and, where possible, eliminate idling. He notes that the city has installed anti-idling devices on some of its fleet, including ambulances. The city is also using telematics devices to track the time and duration of idling occurrences, which are then reviewed to identify where idling may be unnecessary and can be reduced.

Last May, reflecting heightened neighbourhood concern during this era of climate emergency, the Glebe Community Association approved a motion against vehicle idling. The motion urges municipal officials “to take urgent action…in the form of public education, targeted awareness campaigns in key areas like school zones and construction sites, and additional enforcement as needed.” In many cities and towns across Canada, anti-idling signage is prevalent. Not in Ottawa. At least not yet.

On January 29, city council approved a Climate Change Master Plan that calls for a 100 per cent reduction in green-house gas (GHG) emissions by 2040 as a corporation and by 2050 as a community. In 2018, roughly 44 per cent of community-wide GHG emissions came from the transportation sector, primarily from gasoline (27 per cent) and diesel (11 per cent), according to Andrea Flowers, Senior Project Manager, Engineering Systems. She noted that the Master Plan includes approval for 20 Energy Evolution projects intended to start in the next five years to reduce GHG emissions. “Among these proposed projects are personal and commercial vehicle electrification strategies and a zero emission transit fleet strategy,” she said.


To reject idling except in cases of real necessity is one of the easiest and most impactful ways to be kind to yourself and your kids, community and environment. Easiest because you, the driver of a car or SUV or truck or school bus, have control over it. Most impactful because the emissions from an idling vehicle are a toxic blend of harmful chemicals, gases and particle pollution. Keep in mind: idling for over 10 seconds uses more fuel and produces more carbon dioxide emissions than restarting your engine!

I am convinced that people who idle their vehicles know that it’s not a good practice, but consider it inconsequential – nothing like the greenhouse gases produced by industry, for example. Yes, one case may be negligible, but as Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) states, “If all drivers avoided unnecessary idling for three minutes a day, we would save over $630 million per year (assuming a fuel cost of $1/litre). What’s more‚ collectively‚ we would prevent 1.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere daily and contributing to climate change. This would be equal to saving over 630 million litres of fuel and equivalent to taking 320,000 cars off of the road for the entire year. Clearly‚ individual actions‚ when taken by millions of Canadians‚ can make a difference.” Idling your vehicle is far from inconsequential. But the beauty of it is that, unlike industrial emissions, you – that’s right, you – have the power to stop it. With the turn of a key or push of a button. If your typical idling situation is waiting for your child after school, your decision to turn off the ca r makes the air around schoolyards (where idling is all too common) safer for your own and other people’s children (keep in mind that kids are much closer to exhaust systems than you are, so they literally breathe it all in).


Places like Gatineau, Aylmer, B.C. and Manitoba use signs to discourage car and truck idling. PHOTOS: JENNIFER HUMPHRIES

When you idle, you aren’t only impacting your health and that of others, you are squandering money. Fuel is expensive. If you want to save cash, turn your car off whenever you can. And skip the Timmy’s drive-thru, where on any given day you might be 20th in line and idling for well over 10 minutes, and head inside for your coffee.

Yes, and you could actually be fined. The City of Ottawa has an Idling Control Bylaw, adopted in 2007. It prohibits idling for more than three consecutive minutes in a 60-minute period. The fine for contravening the bylaw is $125.

However there are numerous exceptions that make this bylaw difficult to enforce. For example, the bylaw doesn’t apply at or below 5 C, and at or above 27 C (including the windchill value or humidex calculation from Environment Canada). This exception prevails even in cases where there are obvious alternatives to sitting in a cold or hot car, such as entering a school or other public building to wait, or in the case of a 27 C day with a breeze, opening the car windows. With this flexibility, it’s unlikely that many fines have been levied. And, like many of the city’s bylaws, enforcement is conducted on a complaint basis. Still, you have the flexibility to make a healthy, environmentally sound and money-wise choice.


Myths about idling abound. A big one is that idling before driving off on a frosty morning is better for your car. This is one of the two reasons that car owners use remote car starters, the other being comfort. In fact, it’s much better for your car to warm up in motion, not sitting in a driveway or carpark. And it’s just as easy for you to wear weather-appropriate clothing, instead of relying on your vehicle’s heater. See more idling myths and facts on the NRCan website at nrcan.

And the next time someone taps on your car window and asks how long you plan to idle, or suggests you turn the car off and go inside the building you’re waiting at, don’t get defensive. Don’t ask, “So what?” Take it as your chance to make a different choice that benefits us all.

As more of us trade in our gas-powered vehicles for electric models, idling will become a thing of the past. Until then, reducing idling will remain an easy and smart way to shrink our collective carbon footprint and save money at the same time.

Jennifer Humphries is co-chair of the Environment Committee of the Glebe Community Association and a member of Community Associations for Environmental Sustainability. You can reach her at:

READ MORE: Environment Commissioner of Ontario report, March 2019, entitled Climate Pollution: Reducing My Footprint docs. Reducing-My-Footprint.pdf

CBC What on Earth e-newsletter: How big a problem is idling? November 7, 2019 Click here…

NRCan, Why do Canadians idle? Click here…

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