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Rachael Revesz: No idle matter

Friday 19 February 2021

Idling, the act of keeping an engine running when a vehicle is stationary, has been an offence for decades. Yet fines are rarely issued. Small changes could help end this dangerous habit once and for all

You sense it before you see it: a continuous rumbling, a cloud of fumes. Walking down the street, you spot a stationary car with its engine running. An idler. The driver scrolls through Instagram, oblivious to your mounting frustration. You feign a coughing fit and bang on the car window. Once you notice one idler, you will see them everywhere. 

I’m not the only one going bananas. Environmental campaigner George Monbiot recently tweeted that engine idling is “selfish behaviour that presents a grave risk to other people’s health. It should be as socially unacceptable as spreading the virus.”

Idling is not just bad manners, it is dangerous. Air pollution causes up to 36,000 deaths a year, according to Public Health England. Children are exceptionally vulnerable, and recent data shows air pollution disproportionately affects black and ethnic minority communities. Nine-year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who lived metres from London’s South Circular and died of an asthma attack caused by air pollution, was one tragic victim.

Last autumn, I wrote to the Scottish government’s Vehicle Emissions Partnership – a fancy name for the work of one man, Tom Burr – lamenting the amount of idling on my local high street. Burr said I had two options: request signs be erected in problem areas or report the time, location and registration plate of offending vehicles to him. 

I got two signs put up, which I believe Burr did himself with a ladder around 7 am one morning. Burr is responsible for five councils in south-east Scotland. It seems to me, no matter how passionate he is about his job, that one man per sixth of the country is woefully inadequate.

It has been an offence to leave the engine of a stationary vehicle running since 1986. In 2002, local authorities were given the power to fine idlers with a fixed penalty notice of £20. 

Yet drivers are rarely fined. Westminster Council – remarkably proactive on this issue compared to others – has employed “Air Marshal Officers” to patrol the streets for idling vehicles since April 2016, determined to address the fact that they have one of the highest rates of deaths attributable to air pollution in the country. Just a few months before the marshals were brought in, The Telegraph had reported that 8.3 per cent of deaths in the borough were linked to air pollution. Between 2017 and May 2019, they spoke to 20,000 drivers – and issued just 37 fines. 

There appears to be confusion about when and how local authorities can use their power to enforce. According to the DfT, contrary to published reports, councils do not have to warn drivers before handing out a fine.

This confusion is reflected in the data. In England and Wales, the Home Office recorded that 7,500 Fixed Penalty Notices (FPNs) were handed out to drivers in 2019 for lighting and noise-related offences. The number – which includes an unpublished number of FPNs for idling – has halved since 2011 and is one of the lowest of any category recorded. Plus, councils are not required to report data on enforcement. As a result, it is debatable whether we have any accurate national figures on idling at all. 

In 2019, the Department for Transport announced it would launch a consultation on idling that summer to toughen up council powers to enforce the legislation and to make guidance for councils clearer. Former transport secretary Chris Grayling declared that tackling idling was “an easy way to drive down dangerously high levels of pollution”. 

Two years later? The DfT revealed it has no plans to re-launch the consultation and the original announcement has been “withdrawn” from the website

Instead, the government is focusing on a brighter, shinier item: electric cars. But even when we ban the sale of new petrol, diesel and hybrid cars in 2030, that will not prevent many old bangers from driving around for years to come. 

Another deterrent to tackling idling is that most modern cars come with stop-start technology, which cuts off the engine as soon as it stops moving – the problem is that many drivers disable the stop-start function. 

Given that Britain has a target for net zero carbon emissions by 2050, we have to act faster on idling, which can cause more pollution than when a car is in motion. Campaigners are taking it upon themselves by approaching drivers, raising awareness about idling on the school run and encouraging their council to act by closing roads near primary schools during set hours. 

Other campaigns have sprung up, including one backed by the Mayor of London, Sadiq Kahn, called Idling Action (“idling is fuelish”) and another from Renault (“Be mindful, don’t idle”). Yet idling needs concrete action, not simply slogans. 

One obvious option would be to ask parking attendants to monitor idling cars and hand out fines. But several parking attendants working in my local area told me they do not get any training on idling. Their employer NSL, a company that provides services to local governments, declined to comment and said my questions about whether they did provide training were “commercially sensitive”.

In 50 years’ time, we may be bewildered by the fact that we once drove petrol and diesel cars at all, let alone left the engines running when parked, creating noxious fumes which slowly asphyxiated both the driver and passer-by. We will view it in the same way as a world where we could smoke on planes and drive without seatbelts. 

Councils have had almost two decades to enforce anti-idling legislation. In that time, well over half a million people have died of air pollution-related causes. Tackling idling by finally enforcing the law would be such an “easy way” to get to net zero – so why aren’t we doing it? 

And here’s my slogan, for free: “Cough cough, turn your f***ing engine off.”

Rachael Revesz is a freelance journalist focusing on women’s rights, finance and environmental issues.