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Push to curb vehicle idling gains little steam in frigid ND, Minnesota

Shoppers return to their cars from Northport Hornbachers through clouds of exhaust from idling cars Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service1 / 2
An SUV idles while its owner shops at Walmart in Fargo. Blake Gumprecht / Forum News Service2 / 2

In April 2015, members of Girl Scout Troop 34001 went before the Grand Forks City Council to request that council members enact an ordinance prohibiting the idling of vehicles for longer than three minutes, five minutes when the temperature is below freezing.

The Girl Scouts also suggested the city post "no idling" signs near schools, since parents often sit in their cars, engines running, waiting to pick up their kids. They told the council such efforts would save money and help the environment.

Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown thanked the group for bringing the issue to the council and said, according to the minutes of the meeting, the city "will work on this."

Contacted last week, with temperatures below zero and Grand Forks shut down for the day because of a blizzard, Brown had no recollection of the interaction and scoffed at the idea that any city in North Dakota would ever enact an anti-idling ordinance.

"Where we live you need to idle to heat your cars," Brown said. "It's survival."

Yet there is a growing anti-idling movement elsewhere, inspired by concerns about energy consumption, air pollution and climate change. Numerous cities and a few states, particularly in comparatively liberal regions, have enacted such laws. Some apply only to large trucks and buses, but others also apply to cars.

New Jersey prohibits all vehicles from idling for longer than three minutes. Massachusetts and Vermont forbid it for longer than five minutes. Connecticut limits idling to three minutes, except when the temperature is below 20 degrees.

Denver, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., all have imposed strict idling limits, though all allow idling for longer periods when the temperature drops below a particular level. Burlington, Vt., not coincidentally a hyper-liberal college town—where it was minus-20 last week—prohibits idling for longer than three minutes regardless of the weather.

Some places in the upper Midwest have enacted idling ordinances. Minneapolis prohibits idling for longer than three minutes, except when the temperature is below zero or above 90 degrees, when motorists can idle their cars for 15 minutes. Owatonna, Minn., prohibits idling for longer than 15 minutes in residential districts.

But no cities in North Dakota or northern Minnesota appear to have enacted or seriously considered idling restrictions on passenger cars, no doubt because long, cold winters and frequent subzero temperatures make them seem unrealistic.

People throughout the region depend on remote car starters and often allow their cars to warm 15 to 20 minutes before leaving their homes. Many people will leave their cars running when they go to the grocery store or pick up a prescription at a pharmacy.

"It's North Dakota," said a woman, Vickie Wanzek, who did just that at Walmart in Fargo one recent afternoon when the temperature was below zero. "It's what we do."

Even environmentalists in the region seem to pay no attention to the issue, probably figuring it's a lost cause in such a frigid place.

Wayde Schaefer, conservation organizer for the Dakotah chapter of the Sierra Club, when questioned about the subject, said, "This is the only conversation I've ever really had about it. There are a lot of issues, and that just hasn't come up."

'We don't enforce it'

Not only did Grand Forks quickly forget about the suggestion from the Girl Scouts, but Fargo civic leaders do not appear to have formally discussed the issue either. Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney, who has been mayor since 2015 and served on the City Commission for a decade before that, said he doesn't recall the commission ever addressing the possibility of imposing idling restrictions.

"I think with our environment it would be hard to do," Mahoney said.

Fargo does have an ordinance that prohibits leaving a car unattended with its engine running and doors unlocked, unless a remote starter has been used, but it's an old ordinance with a very different motivation. It was intended to reduce the risk of car theft.

Police representatives in Fargo and Moorhead say car thefts increase in wintertime and most of those thefts occur because people leave their cars running, doors unlocked and keys in the ignition. The rise of steam from a car's exhaust pipe makes it easy to tell from a distance which cars are running, but empty. All a thief has to do is check a car's door to see if it's unlocked and, if it is, they drive away.

The state of North Dakota has a law similar to Fargo's, but it is even more restrictive. It prohibits leaving a car unattended with its engine running, with no exception for remote starters. Other places have similar laws on the books, and most have been there for decades, but they are largely ignored by law enforcement.

Questioned about Fargo's ordinance, Deputy Police Chief Ross Renner said, "To be honest, we don't enforce it. There are all kinds of laws on the books. It's not one of those things we choose to enforce."

'Astrostart does wonders'

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that idling by vehicles in the United States wastes about 6 billion gallons of fuel per year, about half of that from personal vehicles.

The agency also reports that idling from personal vehicles generates about 30 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. Carbon dioxide is one of the so-called greenhouse gases that scientists say is a major cause of climate change.

"Idling reduces your vehicle's fuel economy, costs you money, and creates pollution," the agency says on its website.

Modern cars do not need to be warmed before driving on cold winter days for as long as cars did in the past. The agency says most car makers "recommend avoiding idling and driving off gently after running the vehicle for 30 seconds." Car engines warm faster and the car's interior will also warm more quickly if a car is driven rather than sitting idle with the engine running.

The catalytic converter, which reduces emissions, also operates sooner when a car is driven.

But motorists who left their cars running while shopping on a recent afternoon in Fargo defended the practice, felt little or no guilt about the impact of their behavior on the environment, and expressed minimal willingness to change.

The temperature at the time was below zero. It's worth noting that an unscientific survey of shoppers at three stores found that most people did not leave their cars running. Several that did said they would be willing to leave their cars running for up to 30 minutes while shopping.

"Astrostart does wonders," said Darcy Nelson, of Fargo, at a CVS on 13th Avenue South in Fargo, referring to a popular remote starter. "I know people who do the same thing that I do, and I also know people who don't. And I wonder how you can get into such a freezing cold car."

All agreed that proposals for anti-idling laws would not gain much support in such a cold climate, and would likely be ignored.

"When it's below zero, all bets are off as far as I'm concerned," said Derek Green, of Fargo, shopping at Hornbacher's on University Drive in the city. "If it's a 30-below wind chill, I think it's hard to tell people what they can and can't do with their vehicles."

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