General Question

wildpotato's avatar

Why do people idle their engines?

Asked by wildpotato (14959points) June 1st, 2009

It seems to be common knowledge now that car emissions hurt the environment. I’ve also heard that it has been linked to asthma and even cancer. Given this knowledge, why do people persist? Is it to avoid stressing the engine? Or laziness? Even disregarding the health factor, what is the purpose? Sometimes I go into the grocery store and come out a half hour later to find the same car sitting there wasting gas. I just don’t get it.

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30 Answers

Darwin's avatar

They are probably running the air conditioning or listening to the radio and are too self-indulgent to sit in quiet stillness with the windows open for a while.

MrGV's avatar

They do it because they can. No damage will occur if they do it once in a while, but if all they do is leave their car idling everyday constantly there will be engine problems later on; that’s why police cars are known to have idling damage more than anyone else. Police cars spend an inordinate amount of time idling writing tickets, filling out reports and stake outs.

ragingloli's avatar

It is not only bad for the environment, it also costs money. Money for wasted fuel, money for more frequent repairs and money lost when they sell the car.
People are shortsighted.

hungryhungryhortence's avatar

What kind of climate are you in? Where I live (extremely hot), people don’t sit in cars without air conditioning for very long and there is very little shade to be found in most lots.

Dansedescygnes's avatar

Idling like that is a complete waste; they’re probably just sitting in there with their air-conditioning on. Which I don’t really understand because they can leave their damn car; they don’t have to wait for whoever went in the store or what not. But that’s why you need a hybrid; when they idle, they release nothing and make no sound.

Darwin's avatar

It is extremely hot where I live, too, but I find that if I open windows on both sides of the vehicle I get a cross breeze that makes it tolerable. And then there is the possibility of parking in the shade and opening the windows.

Bluefreedom's avatar

I live in Phoenix, Arizona and any breeze here, in the Summer, is like sitting in front of a hair dryer on the warmest setting. As far as shade is concerned, it is still triple digit temperatures in the shade also.

If it were feasible, I would definitely go with @Darwin‘s idea as opposed to running the AC while idling. If the weather is favorable to do so.

crisw's avatar

“But that’s why you need a hybrid; when they idle, they release nothing and make no sound.”

True, but you also can’t idle for long in one (especially with the AC on) or you’ll run down the battery. We have a Prius, and it’s sometimes touch and go in situations where you must idle with the AC on (like deadlocked rush hour traffic, or the Mexico border crossing.)

wildpotato's avatar

Ah, I see, how silly of me to forget about the air conditioning aspect. I think it didn’t occur because I hardly ever use my air conditioning even in very hot weather (though I have never experienced a Phoenix or Texas summer) unless I have animals in the car – just don’t have that kind of gas money to use. That makes sense, thanks!

Darwin's avatar

Of course, the other thing would be to park the bloody car and go inside with the other person or people. But that might involve walking.~

rooeytoo's avatar

When I lived in a cold climate, most everyone would allow the engine to warm (not to mention the heater to start working) before driving off.

Here it is the air con, the inside of the car can reach boiling point in a very short time, you can’t even touch the steering wheel or you burn your hands. There is very little shade and not enough under cover parking. It is not safe to leave the windows open when in the city.

@crisw – the hybrid car always confuses me. Either coal or nuclear energy is needed to generate the electricity to charge the car. I know coal is a pretty heavy pollutant so Is the emissions from coal burning electrical generation less than the gasoline in the car. If nuclear, I believe that is cleaner until one has to dispose of the nuclear waste, that is still a problem.

I have been in the doghouse once this week for taking a question off topic, so don’t answer that, I will start a question about that later!

crisw's avatar


(it’s not that off topic!)
“the hybrid car always confuses me. Either coal or nuclear energy is needed to generate the electricity to charge the car.”

That would be an electric car. Hybrids aren’t charged. They run on gas just like any other car, but part of the gas is used to charge the battery, on which the engine runs at low speeds and at idle.

LKidKyle1985's avatar

who cares if someone idles their car good god. This is america damnit. If they want to sit there and ruin their engines and waste the gas that they paid for then what ever. The environment isn’t going to improve by people not idling their cars anymore, its a bigger issue than that.

wildpotato's avatar

@LKidKyle1985 The idea is not that the environment will improve, but that the rate of its decline will slow. I know this seems like splitting hairs, but that is why the “big issue” (which, as you pointed out, is made up of more than just the idling cars problem) in the end comes down to lots of little changes. Every person can make small lifestyle adjustments that add up to a huge difference for the environment.

I don’t understand your remark about America. Presumably you mean that because we are such freedom-loving people, it makes no sense to place restrictions on engine idling. In reply, I point out that we also place great importance in using our freedom responsibly. If irresponsibility in freedom becomes a problem, as it is in the case of engine idling, it is reasonable to cut back on opportunities to be irresponsible.

evelyns_pet_zebra's avatar

Someone should bring this up with the semi drivers idling at the truck stop, as diesel fuel has all sorts of horrible particulates that once they get in your lungs, they are there to stay.

Any volunteers?

LKidKyle1985's avatar

yeah but the thing is most people wont ever think twice about idling their car, so its kind of futile to even worry about it, when the real problem is the type of technology under the hood, not that people are idling their cars. If we had electric hybrids or something that would make a big difference worth going after, not trying to get people to stop idling their cars.
And my point is we have freedoms here and if I want to be irresponsible with those freedoms thats okay, I can drink all night and all day until I kill myself, and I also have the freedom to buy a gas guzzling Humvee and let it run idle all day if I want. I guess you can try and educate people on the hazards of running their car idle if you want, but the real issue is the type of engines we are using, not what we do with them.

Lupin's avatar

@evelyns_pet_zebra Generally if you see a truck idling for a long time the dirver is trying to keep the reefer running. There are programs now to reduce truck idling. At most big truck stops in New York there are power plug in stations called Idle Air or Make Up Air or some similar “green” sounding name for tractor trailer rigs. You pay by the hour for hookup. It supplies enough power to keep your reefer on, A/C in the cab and Wifi. The driver can sleep in comfort and has the necessary documentation to prove he stopped for the required hours. This concept will spread.
I just checked. The name is IdleAire Advanced Truck Stop Electrification.

IchtheosaurusRex's avatar

A better question might be, why are millions of people parked on the freeway every morning and afternoon, idling their engines because they can’t move an inch? The emissions from that daily urban mess are so great in comparison to the small amount that goes into the air because somebody’s waiting outside the 7/11 that it doesn’t even matter.

wildpotato's avatar

@LKidKyle1985 Drinking yourself to death only hurts you and your friends and family. Idling your car hurts me and everyone around me, as well as the environment. Yes, it is important to promote alternative-fuel cars, but that doesn’t mean we can avoid dealing with the millions of gasoline-fueled cars that are already out there. And people often do listen if you are polite and ask them to stop idling for the reasons I cited above – one man in Mahnattan who does this regularly records all his encounters and has a success rate of over 50% in getting people to turn off their engines.

mattbrowne's avatar

Oil is still too cheap and the environment still looks like a free lunch to some people. Our kids will have to settle the bill.

evelyns_pet_zebra's avatar

@Lupin, uh, most reefer trailers come with their own external unit and fuel supply, and there is no need for the semi to be idling. You can unhook a reefer trailer, set the controls on the external unit, and ‘bobtail’ away. The produce inside will stay fresh and cool for several days until it can be unloaded.

Also, most semis are computerized to shut off the engine after two minutes or so. I brought up semi drivers because most people seem frightened or wary of these ordinary men and women that keep America running.

crisw's avatar


“And my point is we have freedoms here and if I want to be irresponsible with those freedoms thats okay,”

In any sane society composed of responsible people, your right to do any particular activity can be called into question as soon as it negatively impacts someone else.

Lupin's avatar

@evelyns_pet_zebra That’s absolutely true. Half the time people hear the noise of the pony engine running the reefer and they think the engine is running. On hot days The driver will leave the engine running to keep the cab cool. The IdleAir system will work nicely for that as will the power poles. Have you see those setups. They even have a place for exhaust. A company I worked for is making diesel fueled, 3 to 5 kW fuel cells to handle accessory loads. Absolutely silent. but is stil takes fuel. It’s hard to argue with Physics.
Japan had a 60 second rule for Idle stop in Tokyo and many of the delivery trucks came with integrated starter generators. The system was expensive but when you live in a area with so much congestion and fuel running at $8 per gallon, people get creative. (Drivers turned their lights off when stopped in traffic to save fuel, battery wear, and not shine in the opposing driver’s eyes. I tried it a couple of times here and people flashed their lights to tell me mine were off. Oh well…)
And just for the record, I think truck drivers have one of the most difficult and under-appreciated jobs around. Most folks have no idea of the importance. Just look around wherever you are right now. Unless you are sitting on a beach, everything you see was delivered by truck. Wow.

wundayatta's avatar

Wow. I don’t know which idea to tackle first.

@Lupin Truck deliveries are, as you say, the most common way of shipping freight. This is so wrong!!!! Rail is so much more efficient, and goes everywhere, except that they don’t build distribution centers near rail lines any more. Just near highways. How stupid is that????

Idling cars:
I question the idea that people know it’s a problem. I question the idea that people actually care about the environment or global warming or wasting resources. The way people behave, even though they might say they care, they really don’t.

Cars idling on highways:
It’s a function of the dysfunctional way Americans live. Suburban sprawl is responsible for most of this. People all want their acre of grass. Makes them feel like they are rich enough to live in the country. Maybe it feels safer. Further away from unemployment and homelessness. None of these things are true, of course, but people think they are.

If you live in the suburbs, you might think you’re improving your quality of life, but really all it does is let you be alone more—sitting idle on the highway for a couple of hours every day, listening to the radio, talking on the phone, and even surfing the net. Suburbs are the stupidest idea ever. Whoever invented Levittown ought to be consigned to a special circle in Hell.

Again, we need to put in rail connections to the city. They need to run often and regularly. We need to move back to cities, and live up, not out. We need to deep six our cars as much as possible (and far more than people believe is possible).

Obviously, I don’t have very strong opinions on this subject. LOL. I can tell you that if a person lives in a suburb, it is automatically a strike against them in my book. If they smoke—two strikes. If they are a Republican—I shiver in horror.

I am a proud city-living, recycling and composting, bicycle-commuting, hybrid-driving Democrat. I walk the walk! Now, if only I had a grey-water recovery system…

ragingloli's avatar

it’s not a prius, is it?

Darwin's avatar

@daloonDon’t move where I live. Grey-water recovery is illegal. The head of the water department also thinks cisterns are too ugly to allow.

wundayatta's avatar

@ragingloli Nope, a Highlander.

@Darwin I don’t know where they are legal. That’s the first thing to change.

Darwin's avatar

@daloon – I know people who have cisterns in Key West, and we had one in Venezuela (everybody did – it was the only way to be certain to have water). Also, they must be legal somewhere in the western US because Sunset magazine had a nice article on attractive cisterns a few years ago. Don’t tell anyone but I do reuse my washing machine water on the back yard during droughts.

ragingloli's avatar

no offence, but if wiki can be trusted , that is an suv with a not so great fuel economy of 28mpg. it would be more economical and better for the environment to instead drive a diesel vw lupo, which does over 3 times as much. (over 70 mpg according to top gear)

wundayatta's avatar

I do a lot of city driving. My previous car was a Corolla that got 18 mpg in the city. It also carried fewer people. This car gets 22–24 mpg in the summer in the city. It also can carry seven people, saving us the use of two cars on many occasions. It is an SUV, but it gets better mileage than just about every other SUV, and when you look at person-miles per gallon, it does a whole lot better. We generally have at least two people in it, if not four, and occasionally seven. It is a big improvement on our old car.

Now, it is true that we could dispense with a car altogether, and use car-share cars for city driving, and rent cars for long trips. We’d save money and gas, no doubt, but it would also present a serious cost for us in terms of convenience. However, in our favor, we only have one car, where a lot of families of four have three or even four cars.

As far as the Lupo is concerned, it isn’t sold in the US. Also, it doesn’t have a/c or much of anything else. It doesn’t have enough power for American driving, and probably would be dangerous as a result of that. So the mileage isn’t as good as it would be if it were designed to sell in the US. It’s also not very big. You couldn’t get more than four people in it, and you certainly wouldn’t want to use it for long trips with four people.

They say that VW makes it just to try to look green, but they aren’t serious about it. We’ll see. It looks like it could be good for noodling around town. Like the so-called “Smart” car.

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