Sustainable America Blog

Police to Motorists: Stop Idling Your Cars

Key in a car ignition

Bill Selak via Flickr

Letting your car idle unattended is not only bad for the environment and air quality, it could end up costing more—a fine or even your car itself.

Car thieves are known for jumping at an easy opportunity, and an unlocked, unattended running vehicle is as easy as it gets. Even so, people still insist on warming up cars in driveways on cold days or leaving cars running while they pop into convenience stores.

According to the National Crime Information Center, 147,434 vehicles were reported stolen with keys from 2013 to 2015. The statistics don’t list how many were idling at the time, but there’s little doubt many of them were since these types of thefts spike in the fall and winter months. In Springfield, Missouri, police say about 37 percent of cars stolen had keys in them; of those about 27 percent were actually running.

“Especially in cold weather, it’s a tell tale sign when you have an exhaust ploom coming out the back of a car, criminals are looking for targets of opportunity, they are not necessarily staking out a particular address or particular location, they are driving around looking for an unattended car idling so they can steal it,” said Mjr. Kirk Manlove with the Springfield Police Department told local television station KSPR.

In Milwaukee this winter, a newlywed couple’s car was stolen as it idled in front of a hotel. It was full of charity donations and gifts they’d received at their wedding the night before.

Tracking down these stolen cars is a needless drain on police resources (just as the idling itself is a needless drain on the environment). And some of the stolen vehicles end up being used in other more serious crimes. To help raise awareness, police departments around North America issue warnings about leaving vehicles idling unattended every winter. Even so, police in Calgary, Alberta, counted 544 vehicles idling with no driver over four days in January.

In Wichita, where 187 unattended idling vehicles were stolen in 2016, police are leaving warning flyers on cars they find warming up without a driver. On one December morning, they left 84 flyers.

Some municipalities could curb thefts further by issuing fines for unattended idling. In many places it’s already illegal to idle for several minutes, whether you’re in the car or not, but these laws are rarely enforced.

On top of risking losing your car, idling is just plain bad for your car’s engine. Business Insider interviewed former drag racer Stephen Ciatti who oversees the combustion engine work at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois to get to the bottom of this issue. The article explains the process in detail, but essentially, idling a vehicle in the cold strips oil from critical components that help your engine run, namely the cylinders and pistons.

Is slipping into a semi-warm car really worth damaging your engine, polluting the air, and risking fines and theft? Instead, bundle up, let your car run for a few seconds, then get on your way. Your local police department will thank you.

To learn more about vehicle idling and find resources to help reduce idling in your community, visit

8 Reasons to Turn Off an Idling Car
Video: How Idling at School Affects Kids’ Health
7 Ways to Take Action on Idling

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.

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