Canadian drivers concerned about idling and air pollution: poll

Mike De Souza ,  Canwest News Service

Published: Monday, June 16, 2008

OTTAWA – Many Canadian motorists are concerned about causing pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, but they appear to be confused about how they can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change by shutting off their engine, a new government survey has revealed.

Overall, 97 per cent of respondents to the Strategic Counsel poll, conducted last fall for Natural Resources Canada, said that they agreed with the statement that “each member of the community has a responsibility for protecting our environment.” The poll also revealed that 89 per cent believed that “idling a vehicle contributes significantly to air pollution” and 76 per cent believe that “idling a vehicle contributes significantly to climate change.”

However, when asked how long they should keep their engine idling without shutting it off, only 26 per cent said 30 seconds or less, compared with 44 per cent who said more than one minute. Only 49 per cent of respondents said that they agreed that “shutting off and restarting a vehicle when it is stopped uses less gasoline than if you leave it running.”

The poll surveyed 1,000 Canadians in the Ontario cities of Mississauga and Sudbury between Nov. 23 and Dec. 11, 2007, and is considered accurate for each of the two regions within 4.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. Although the results cannot be extrapolated with certainty to determine attitudes and behaviour across Canada, a senior government official said that the findings were consistent with previous research.

“Overall, the survey results demonstrate that drivers’ behaviours often seem to contradict their attitudes with respect to vehicle idling,” said the Strategic Counsel report.

“On one hand, they tend to show a high degree of concern for the environment and air quality in their communities and they also understand the links between vehicle idling and air pollution. At the same time, however, many nevertheless leave their vehicle idling for lengthy periods in certain situations and will agree with statements that may be used to justify idling their vehicle, especially in the winter.”

Catherine Ray, who has researched the issue at Natural Resources Canada for more than a decade, said she is encouraged by the changing attitudes of Canadian motorists, and expects eventually to see a shift in behaviour once people understand the impact of their driving habits and the importance of shutting off an engine on a car that is parked for more than 60 seconds.

“I think it’s always important when we talk about being environmental (to) go for the low-hanging fruit,” said Ray, a senior manager at the Office of Energy Efficiency. “This isn’t tough to do: Turn your engine off, and (if) you can make a difference by doing something as easy as turning your key, (then) why not?”

Ray said the government also plans to raise awareness through an Internet “idle-free zone” that is expected to be posted online by the end of the week at The government does not recommend that people turn their engine off and on if they are stuck in traffic, she added. But if all Canadian drivers in light duty vehicles collectively removed an average of three minutes of idling per day, she said they would save 630 million litres of fuel, prevent 1.5 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere, which is the equivalent of taking 320,000 cars off the road.

Pierre Sadik, a senior policy adviser at the David Suzuki Foundation, said that driving behaviour is also likely to improve as the price of gas continues to rise.

“I think the lesson from this survey is that ultimately the pocketbook will speak even louder than Canadians’ concern about the environment,” said Sadik.

With files from Andrew Mayeda (Ottawa Citizen).

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