Idle Displeasures

Simone Ramella
A Case Against Remote Car Starters
I curb my emissions every morning by starting my automobile the old-fashioned way: with a key, while sitting in the driver’s seat. My first car was a 1977 orange VW Beetle. I bought it with my own money and parked it in the yard for six months until I was old enough to drive. I’d sit out there at night, imagining the open road in front of me and listening to the radio (all in all, very fuel-efficient).

Once I got my license, the sense of freedom was so great I didn’t care that the heater didn’t work: I wore two coats and drove while scraping ice off the inside of the windshield. I’m not saying this was safe; I just mean my standards for comfort while driving were set incredibly low at a formative age. I was 30 before I owned a car with all the bells and whistles: seatbelts in the front and back seats, tires with treads and a uniform coat of paint.

That same Toyota has nearly 130,000 miles on it and still feels new because the heat works and it always starts. Which leads me to puzzle at the ubiquitous sight and sound this winter of empty vehicles ominously revving to life with no one in sight, a neighborhood full of Christine wannabes idling in driveways for several minutes each morning with no one at the helm.

I won’t argue that it’s been a brutal few months for the Northeast. The notion of starting the car remotely and letting it both defrost the windshield and warm up my kid’s car seat is a nice one. But what’s the cost of a comfier commute? (And the issue IS comfort; warming up the engine for any longer than it takes to buckle up and adjust the mirrors went out with carburetors 20 years ago. Easing onto the road immediately upon starting the engine warms the entire car more speedily than idling, and produces less total pollution.)

Ironically, most of these idling vehicles in my ‘burb are of the family-sized varieties. Yet this excess idling and its resulting atmospheric contamination is most harmful to the health of young children, particularly those with respiratory illnesses like asthma. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, for every minute a typical light-duty gasoline-fueled truck (SUV, minivan, pick-up truck) sits idling in winter conditions (30 degrees F), it emits 8.8 grams of pollutants such as volatile organic compounds, nitrous oxides and carbon monoxide. So, that’d be nearly 90 grams if idling for 10 minutes. Honestly, I don’t know what that means, in the scheme of things. Pollution the size of a fist? The toxic equivalent to 3/4 cup of flour? Exhaust fumes equal to enough pot to earn a felony charge in some states? Regardless, it’s an unnecessary burden, especially on the littlest lungs.

And, if your conscience won’t convince you to ditch the remote starter, perhaps your wallet will: Remember that a car uses the most gasoline when idling, since it gets zero mpg while in the driveway.