For years, I’ve maintained that what Japan’s cities need is more car thieves.
Every day we see vehicles parked in front of stores, parks, malls and train stations with the engines running. One night, in a small town, I watched a man in a Mercedes go into a store, leaving the engine running. Concerned about the environment, I asked him, “Aren’t you going to turn the engine off?” He thought I was worried about crime and told me, “Don’t worry, no one here will steal it.”
It seems that many people are concerned about the Kyoto Protocol, but not about the streets of Kyoto. According to experts, even when a car is cruising down the street, more than 80% of the energy of combustion is wasted as heat. When an automobile is idling, the cooler engine temperature impedes the function of the exhaust-filtering catalytic converter. The vehicle is soon producing an unfiltered mix of harmful gases.
Isn’t there anything a concerned citizen can do when seeing a car idling needlessly?
From this question came the “Stop Idling Yellow Card” campaign. I printed up a set of cards about the size of drink coasters with the intention of “penalizing” drivers who leave their cars running. As of this writing, our small band of volunteers has approached 200 people, pointing out that their idling engines are wasting costly gasoline and releasing greenhouse gasses.
Why make the card yellow? We don’t have the authority to force people to turn off their own cars, and we encourage cooperation rather than confrontation. A gentle warning card like those used by soccer referees was an obvious choice.
Instead of just plastering notices on windshields, though, we try to engage each driver in discussion. “The problem with the environment is not in the future — it’s now,” we say. Or: “Wouldn’t it be good to turn the engine off?” Only after establishing that essential personal contact do we hand over the yellow card and encourage drivers to read over the printed information.
We’ve seen that we can bring about a direct, immediate result in just 30 seconds of conversation: a full 65.5% of drivers we spoke with turned their engines off, with a few even giving us an encouraging thumbs up or OK sign. Compare that to marketing practices like direct mail advertising, which only gets a 2-3% response rate. People can shrug their shoulders at the TV news, but when a fellow human being walks up and asks them to turn the engine off, it brings the entire global warming debate into their lap.
Of the 34.5% of yellow cards that didn’t result in an engine being turned off, the most common reason was simply that there was no driver in the car to speak to. We had no options other than jumping in and taking the keys, or slipping a card on the windshield. We went for the latter—although the idea of taking the keys was sorely tempting.
The people we spoke to who didn’t turn their engines off included drivers of refrigerated delivery trucks and cabbies who insisted that they needed their vehicles to be running for their dispatch radios to work. For overworked salarymen napping in their cars, we usually put a card on the window, but for those who egregiously parked under the shade of trees near public parks, we tapped on the window and asked them to turn the engine off.
In the tedium of talking with hundreds of people, there were a few moments of humor. One young woman wearing a miniskirt in the passenger seat started to climb over to the driver’s seat to turn the key, but then stopped when she realized the move would leave her completely exposed. In a handful of cases, the drivers sped off in a panic at the sight of an approaching foreigner.
In the course of the campaign, we’ve noted the pervasiveness of drivers who sit in parking lots, compulsively tinkering with cellphones, game sets, radios and TVs in a practice that I term “gadget masturbation.” The availability of so much electronic amusement turns the car into an insulated entertainment booth which not only belches pollution but discourages drivers from getting out and stretching their legs.
There were some who completely stonewalled us, refusing to even lower the window a crack to listen, let alone turn off the engine. But these were notable in their scarcity. Out of 200 conversations, there were only seven — a mere 3.5% — who completely ignored us. Unsurprisingly, two were driving Mercedes and one a BMW. On the other hand, a man in a Jaguar was very polite and turned his engine off, apologizing for his carelessness. Draw your own conclusions.
Shibly Nabhan, PhD, is a Japan-based journalist and communications consultant.
This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today