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It’s time to penalize drivers who leave their motors running

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By Shibly Nabhan

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

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

65 Comments
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I couldn't agree more. This habit of leaving the engine running is completely ludicrous, inconsiderate, filthy and dangerous (witness the four children who died recently sitting a car with the engine running while Dad popped into a house for a chat.)

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Interesting! What a good campaign. Idling is dangerous, and I see it much too often. I used to hate it when I would see that sort of thing in the states.

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Idling is just a drop in the ocean when it comes to the environment. This kind of self gratifying campaign is in the same ilk as bring your own bags when you go shopping, ie. pretty useless.

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They did some research on this a while ago in New York where people tend to turn off their car engines during traffic jams. The result was that if you're going to be idling for less than 5 to 10 minutes (depending on the age and make of car) then it is more efficient to leave the car idling. When you turn the ignition switch a fairly considerable amount of fuel needs to be injected to get the engine started and a lot of it isn't used and is released as pollution.

To make a long story short, if you're just popping into the combini to grab an onigiri (3 minutes max) then it's better for the environment (and your fuel consumption) to leave the engine idling.

Do some research before criticising.

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Not a bad piece, but Nabhan should have mentioned how the difference between idling and not idling can mean the difference between not getting tikceted for illegal parking and getting ticketed. They need to change the rule that keeps idling from being regarded as parking.

Of course this rule will never change, because businesses benefit from using public roads as their parking lots. If you park on a residential street where you aren't blocking busy traffic, you'll have the cops called on you within the hour. But if you park or idle on a busy trunk road in front of a business or if you park so as to obstruct a sidewalk (illegal), you have nothing to worry about.

Getting rid of such parking would benefit us cyclists, so it would go even further in reducing energy waste and carbon emissions. Instead, Japan has been getting less and less hospitable to cyclists.

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I just hate the fat truck driver idiots sleeping inside their trucks with the engine idling all the time. Nobody here seems to notice how bad this can be for the environment...

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Frungy - if your car (any car you can buy in Japan) is made in the past 10 years, if you are to idle it for more than 30 seconds it would be better to just shut the engine off. I KNOW what I'm talking about...

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When someone does that outside my building I get eggs and drop them without the shells. Don't want to wake them up, just want to surprise them later in the day.

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And what about taxi drivers in this country! Outside my local train station they all sit in their taxis with the engines running. Granted that in summer it's hot and they need air conditioning but how about making a air conditioned room or something where they can sit. Also trains. Often when they stop at a station waiting for a train to pass they open the doors and all the heat or cool air escapes out the doors. I think JR trains may have a button on the door which you push to open it. Kintetsu trains don't have this button so a waste of heating or air conditioning.

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I have often thought about blocking exhaust pipes with oranges or bananas! That'll stop the engines pretty quickly. Unfortunately I never have such fruit available at the time.

No mention of where we can get these yellow cards. It would be great if they were available and could be printed from a web page somewhere.

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Its time to penalize a lot of things in Japan.....

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I agree 100% about penalizing these guys.

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Frungy - I took your advice and did some research. Took me all of 30 seconds.

Myth 3: Shutting off and restarting your vehicle uses more gas than if you leave it running. The bottom line is that just 10 seconds of idling uses more fuel than restarting the engine. As a rule of thumb, if you are going to stop for 10 seconds or more - except in traffic - turn off the engine. You’ll save money, and you won’t produce harmful Carbon Dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas.

If I recall, this myth was common knowledge at least 10 years ago. Why don't you take your own advice and do some reasearch before spouting off?

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^^ incorrect

Even on current model fuel injected engines, it is still more efficient to idle for 5-7 min than to turn off and restart the car, plus reheating the catylitic converter. After driving, it is at operating temp. and remains such while idling, thus cleaning the exhaust as much as possible. When turned off, it cools, then has to reheat, all the while the computer management adds more fuel to the mix until it is properly heated. Even in the last 10yrs, engines and engine management have hardly advanced since the mid/late 90's despite what flashy commercials try to sell.

This article is uninformed and more of someones personal pet peeve than anything else.

Trucks idling, yeah that's pretty annoying.

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socitymike- correct.

A vehicle's catalytic converter needs to be hot (400 to 800 degrees Celsius) before it can effectively clean pollutants from its exhaust. The best way to warm the converter is to drive the vehicle

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I came across a guy idling in a home centre car park last week, right in front of a sign that said "no idling". We had to park next to him, and when I got my son and baby out of the car the fumes were disgusting. I asked him politely if he would switch the engine off, and he replied with the Japanese equivalent of...how can I put this politely?...I should go do to myself what I did in the past to make said baby and son.

Well, at least I tried!

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Buy a hybrid. Most hybrids turn off the petrol engine when stopped.

Citizen12 - that's exactly the sort of thinking which prevents incremental change from happening. Do you really believe that it wouldn't reduce the CO2 produced in Japan if none of the millions of cars of the roads spent significant amounts of time idling? For that matter, in Japan, taking reusable shopping bags will also help to reduce greenhouse gases because shopping bags are burnable rubbish in Japan. If each individual person does a little to improve the situation, it adds up to a major change over a population of 127 million. Personally I think that governments should set minimum fuel efficiency standards. It's not a question any more whether an individual can afford to pay for the fuel costs to drive a Humvee, but whether the environment can afford it.

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Yes yes and more yes. I wish there were more car thieves to steal the cars of these idiots who leave their engines running.

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societymike, hosrefella, you are both wrong - a modern (built in the last 10 years) car engine spends less than 5-10 seconds worth of fuel for startup, thanks partly to stronger starter motors, improved injection strategy and reduced friction.

If you are to idle the engine for more than 30 seconds you should just stop it...

read here - a very informative article: http://hiroshimagab.blogspot.com/2006/08/idling-vs-cutting-engine.html

I can't give my own data, but I indeed KNOW what I'm talking about, working exactly in this field...

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ebisen - in any case, it backs my original point that costly engine ignition is a myth. Idling is useless.

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Bravo Shibly Nabhan, PhD....I live in Fukuoka and noticed this unaceptable problem...they are always thinking bring your own bag shopping is the only way to stop global warming etc. I always approach vehicles and in broken Japanese, ask them if they would not idle and turn off the car. Which 99% do so with a smile, I meet resistance with cab drivers which are a big problem. They laugh it off as i think its old school thinking that even modern cars needs to be on to prevent wear and tear...But most them are senior drivers...One guy had the cab off and we asked hime why and he said its his own cab so he has to pay for the fuel etc. I guess thats something we should take up with the Taxi companies and stop wasting the fuel so they dont complain its so costly to drive cabs, Dont idle, money saved money earned and healthy air for everyone etc. Also Some companies here drive around in Large empty buses as moving billboards...crazy, polluting the air and causing more traffic grid lock. The one company here that annoys me is called "LOVE THE EARTH" a bento delivery company, who by the name is really not loving the earth by idling everywhere while the drivers deliver there product. If you see kids left alone in an idling car call the police right away...that a law here not to do that. Speak your mind.

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Shibly Nabhan, Where can I get those signs so I can start that campaign in my city. Education is the key...

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Install I-Stop in all the cars = problem solved.

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Unfortunately, yellow carding some fellows in front of the combini does not solve the main problem: truck drivers and taxi drivers. Where I live, at night there are always long lines of taxis idling, some in target spots waiting for customers, some in quiet places for a good rest. And when waiting at the traffic stop before my home late at night, the cars running consist of 80-90% taxis (expected), but most of them without customers (disturbing)

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I enjoyed reading the comments more than I did the article. Lesson of the day : turn off the darn car cause it's the economical and ecological choice.

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I would love some of those yellow cards. This has long been a pet peeve of mine in Japan. I live near a 7-11 now and would say about 90% of the cars are left idling. Summer is the worst. On those hot summer nights when you like to have the windows open to sleep some punk has his loud car idling at 2:00 am while he is inside reading a magazine for half an hour. And every time the A/C kicks on the idle revs up! This problem should be seriously addressed here in Japan. Especially with the price of gas. Do these people have money to burn?

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Really? Idling? wow...

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My car idles for a couple minutes after I get out....turbo timer. I get a kick out of people who give me the "you left your car running" look.

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Isn’t there anything a concerned citizen can do when seeing a car idling needlessly?

Comfort always beat environmental thoughts.

PS: Lovely notion that Japan needs more car thief's. I fully agree. Japanese need a traumatic experience to change their behavior.

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Idling is just a drop in the ocean when it comes to the environment. This kind of self gratifying campaign is in the same ilk as bring your own bags when you go shopping, ie. pretty useless.

Its not, as it contributes to a larger shift in peoples mindset.

PS: I want to quote Apple's CEO Steve Jobs with a little twist: "Are you doing something --like the author of this report-- to improve your environment, or is all you can do the belittling of efforts of others? "

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Namaman, kadenmaya, koriyamaboy (and anyone I missed) - maybe you could make some cards yourself.

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To make a long story short, if you're just popping into the combini to grab an onigiri (3 minutes max) then it's better for the environment (and your fuel consumption) to leave the engine idling.

This study is years old and outdated (in this study it was also said that the engines are "damaged if constantly switched on and off"). Modern engines with automatic start-stop prove that switching off the engine --even short time-- result in measurable improvement of the mileage.

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Even on current model fuel injected engines, it is still more efficient to idle for 5-7 min than to turn off and restart the car, plus reheating the catylitic converter. After driving, it is at operating temp. and remains such while idling, thus cleaning the exhaust as much as possible.

That would defy all Toyota hybrids out there ... wouldn`t it?

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Shibly Nabhan, Where can I get those signs so I can start that campaign in my city. Education is the key...

Get a (cheap) color printer and print your own messages on a sheets of "sticky notes", then you can plaster the windscreen of the offender.

Get the ones that are hard to peel off and print the message BIG. I do that for people blocking my driveway and it gives the added joy to see people desperately trying to peel off the damn thing ...

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I dont think this is really changing the mindset of most people. The majority will do something at the request of others just to shut them up / be polite. I can see it now. Me: ummm, could you please turn your car off. It's giving me a headache with all the fumes and its polluting our air here. Driver: Uhh, ok...(turns it off)

Next day, same person, same car idling...

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I have a better idea. I think it is time to punish people who leave there little kids in their cars and go play pachinko. To many times we have seen on Japan Today articles about kids who die from heat when left in cars.

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I don't do this, but anyone that puts "...ones that are hard to peel off and print the message BIG..." for anything on my private property is gonna get bopped on the schnoz.

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Interesting that two sides have completely different data on the same exact thing. How to choose between them?

I think I am in the corner of the "no idling for more than 30 seconds" camp because if it were not true, then hybrid cars would have no meaning. I don't think modern engines need so much gas to start, and hybrid engines might be the best, but others just can't be so far behind. Then we have the cooling of the catalytic converter if you shut the engine off, but that takes time. Its still pretty hot after 20 minutes with the engine shut off so I can't imagine that after 5 or 10 minutes its not going to work well at all.

I actually have an engine key and a door key on my pull apart key chain just so I can idle the engine with the door locked. I will still idle my engine for safety reasons in winter and maybe for a quick run in the conbini (less than a minute), but otherwise I think I won't do this as much. Not that I ever left the engine idling more than a few minutes outside of winter anyway though.

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Must agree with some of the posts here that things are unlikely to change here in Japan. Same as people constantly parking in the handicapped zones and the department stores, etc. The Japanese seem to be pretty selfish unless they can be held accountable to the police or their company. I love putting the handicapped parking plastic cone on the roof of some punk's car when it is in the handicapped parking space and he (or she) is in the store. Even more fun when they have parked on an angle. Fun to watch him come out and wonder what it is all about. Generalizing? Yes. But I have lived here 12 years and when it comes to cars/driving/parking/idling they are a selfish bunch.

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at the department stores (Oops)

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"For years, I’ve maintained that what Japan’s cities need is more car thieves."

"send them home" for saying or encouraging that. not the best way to promote an idea

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I thought this idling thing was more aimed at those salarimen who are busy working whilst asleep under a bridge with the cars idling for more than an hour or so. Or those that idle while the wife shops for an hour or so. However, being not raised in safety-Japan, I don't let my car idle outside a convenience store because I don't want it stolen. So if more were stolen, then maybe more people would turn them off. Hey, wasn't last week Bicycle to Work Friday?

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Unless I am mistaken while your engine is running and you are in the car, legally you are not parked. Turning the engine off can make you legally parked and therefore liable for a ticket. Somebody told me that is why taxi drivers leave their engines running when they sleep in their cab.

Also, regarding Mercedes-Benz, these are the cars of choice for yakuza, which could explain why the owner thought nobody would steal it. Who would dare steal a yakuza car? Sometimes the police are even afraid to ticket them.

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Depends on the season and where I'm driving. If the weathers nice or if I'm in a city the car goes off, if its above 80 degrees or below 30 it stays on, I'm not willing to sweat or freeze my butt off for somebody else's environmental tendencies.

Hey, wasn't last week Bicycle to Work Friday?

Ha, if someone wants to stick me on a tandem and peddle me 40 miles to work I won't stop them.

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I would love to talk to you about doing this project in Tokyo. I know several university professors who would support this here. Contact info please.

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If somebody wants to put a little card on my window I'm cool with that as long as it isn't adhesive, in which case they better be carrying some Goo Gone or I'm suing for defacing my property.

Anyway it might not even be on the street. Most of us have probably started up the car in the winter before heading out to defrost or just to make it a more comfortable temperature and I've done the same in the summer to blow out some of the heat. Complaining about idling cars is silly.

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koriyamaboy@ Yes there is a lot of selfish people on the roads. Pedestrians too!!! I hate how everyone finds a need to races me to get past through narrow roads, will not let you merge even though there is a red light, block traffic, block street and drive ways. And the looks you get when they don't get their way. But to get back on topic: Leaving your car run without you in it is soooo pointless and stupid. How hard and long is it to start a car? Just a quick turn of a key, it takes you longer to get in the car. Just wait, I'm waiting for some car thefts or children who decide that they want to get curious and to and drive a car that was left unattended stories to start popping up on JT.

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I know it is illegal for one to be ideling their car to warm up in the winter time or any time of the year.

I have a short driveway out of my garage where the engine is started up & I slowly work my way out to where I am going to actaully drive onto the road.

That is as far as I do it & in warmer weather then I have fired up a m/c of the Sportclass I am getting myself ready, by staddeling it & as the temp climbs up properly THAT is when I shift into lst gear & ready to roll.

They put the above into effect in the Winter time in Edmonton Albera some yrs ago for so many being ideled for warm-up was when so many would be stolen so that fira with the thinking of 888naff & some others.

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It burns more fuel to restart the engine. You never notice the puff of smoke when the engine is started? I am glad there are so many that worry about such things, You can offset my V-8 engine. Thanks.

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Pretty aggressive there. Just keep in mind violation of private property when you force your way into a car. Driver has the right to report you to authorities. Now about the environment, even though the impact of idling engine is insignificant, and your theory of cool engine causing harm is simply not true, I actually do try to switch off engine at long red lights. However, this won't be an option during summer. as engine power is required for aircon.

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That cars burn more fuel for restarting is bullocks. The smoke you see coming out of a car that starts is from a cold engine, when it doesn't fully burn its fuel and puffs out more dirt. In particular modern cars with their catalytic converter due that before the engine warms. If you just shut it down for a few minutes, it won't get cold so you won't see that. Further the '3' liter cars, the EU aimed for, did mainly that and reduced their fuel usage incredibly with tweaks of this size since the early 90s.

But that is not the worst here. Leaving your car running without even sitting in it ? What is the point ? Unless your windows are frozen with thick ice, I don't see the point.

You don't want to turn off your engine because off the air conditioning ? That runs from battery easily 10, 15 minutes. And if you sit for 10,15 minutes in your car, your are doing something quite wrong.

Really, instead of the cool biz stupidity just enforcing THIS would have a noticable impact. In fact, just forbid TVs in the front media panel and a lot of drivers won't leave their car idling because they have no reason anymore to sit for an hour watching their favorite TV shows.

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Not everyone idling would restart the car if they shut it off either. For years as I walked to work in the morning, I saw a lady would drive into the parking lot, sit there smoking with the engine idling for five minutes or so, then turn it off and get out when her friend arrived. Drove me nuts, everyday.

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I live in a Canadian city that has no idling laws and I ask drivers everyday to please turn off their vehicles. I meet with varying responses. After getting frustrated with having little impact, I decided to produce a television commercial on the subject. Please see my link to view the commercial: http://www.angrysue.ca/?p=24 Sue Hutch

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develin said: That cars burn more fuel for restarting is bullocks.

No, its true. But if a car used more than a few seconds worth of fuel it needs to just idle, like say 30 seconds, that would be one BIG puff of smoke. You had that with older cars. Newer cars are not like that.

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Who CARES whether the cars are idling or not - it is the dangers of these maniacs parking their cars in loading zones/bus /bike zones that is the real problem. Try riding a bicycle in the mornings in this country - it's a death trap!

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For years, I’ve maintained that what Japan’s cities need is more car thieves.

That's where I stopped reading.

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Mark , LOL me too ! I stopped right there !

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I agree that drivers who leave their engines running needlessly should be penalised for wasting fuel, not for "polluting the environment." The Kyoto Protocol died along with "global warming" sometime back. Copenhagen failed, because it was based on misinformation and lies. Scientists have been deceiving the world about climate change and "global warming" for wuite some time, aided and abetted by the political motives of the UN organization, who are intent on imposing a World Government upon us.

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Realist is right. I'm also surprised there are many here still falling for the global warming scam. Sure, needlessly idling your car will add extra harmful gases into the air we all breathe, but that is nothing compared to real pollution from the big corporations. Our food and water is contaminated by these big bastards, and people are less healthy now than previous generations. All you fake planeteers need to do real research into the big picture, and PLEASE, don't harass your fellow average folk. Like a previous bloke mentioned, it's amazing this author would really wish for an increase in carjacking to help fix this "problem".

Direct your energy and disgust at more important issues. Root problems.

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Really?! I thought I was the only one. Forget the CO2 nonsense, it's the exhaust and carbon-Monoxide. It begins with knock on the window, a smile, a request and a nice line maybe about the reason which often is that the gas accumulates in my stairwell. Most people are stopped illegally anyway, they nearly all switch off or they leave. Or maybe I'll just hang around. All the delivery guys in my area know me, I've called in to some of their offices. Easy targets. LOL! So too are any vehicles whith "Eco-Driver" stickers on them (means they've had special burn less gas driver training), or "Idling Stop!" stickers. Freezer trucks btw can sit half the day in the sun without any problem. They're designed that way! You can also take cell phone pictures of sleeping drivers, company logo visible, or name tag, and the plate. Then wake them up him up and show them the pictures. Know what you are getting yourself into tho and be ready. Some of the guys in my area we laugh now when we pass on the street.

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Who cares about idling? If you turn off the car the AC warms and so does the interior of the car. There is no conclusive evidence anyway that global warming is caused by people. Turning the car off and back on again shortly is damaging to the car and in turn the environment because you will have to buy another sooner!

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Really?! I thought I was the only one. Forget the CO2 nonsense, it's the exhaust and carbon-Monoxide. It begins with knock on the window, a smile, a request and a nice line maybe about the reason which often is that the gas accumulates in my stairwell. Most people are stopped illegally anyway, they nearly all switch off or they leave. Or maybe I'll just hang around. All the delivery guys in my area know me, I've called in to some of their offices. Easy targets. LOL! So too are any vehicles whith "Eco-Driver" stickers on them (means they've had special burn less gas driver training), or "Idling Stop!" stickers. Freezer trucks btw can sit half the day in the sun without any problem. They're designed that way! You can also take cell phone pictures of sleeping drivers, company logo visible, or name tag, and the plate. Then wake them up him up and show them the pictures. Know what you are getting yourself into tho and be ready. Some of the guys in my area we laugh now when we pass on the street.

Thats dedication...golf seems more fun though. I mean idling...really?

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Just common sense. More than anything else it's the air you breath. If you can smell it it's affecting you. If you can't smell it, say if it's a new hi efficiency diesel, it's worse. So I speak up. The stairwell I mention is enclosed and it only takes a few minutes for it to fill with fumes. Poor building design sure, but the lines on the road indicate no stopping anyway and I haven't got a problem if the engine is off. It's also a noise issue.

I'm inner city. The small park out front is ringed by a street. Ever walked by sections of road where trucks drive up, put their feet up just idle? It's noxious, noisy. And here it's park/street. 3m from the kiddy slide with tykes all around there'll be vehicles idling. I'd read the paper out there more if it didn't first have to deal with all the idling engines.

I'll add that phoning in to the delivery companies you really are doing them a favor. It's competitive and most are sensitive to your views if not their own fuel costs. With taxis tho it's different.

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"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."

OK, that sounds a bit creepy, lol...

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genkimark, you may be off the mark. I think the quote you meant to respond to can be found here:

http://metropolis.co.jp/features/the-last-word/idle-behavior/

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