Idling at drive-thrus creates health problems

Idling at drive-thrus creates health problems  | Beverley J. Anderson is the air quality educator for the Williams Lake Environmental Society, in partnership with the Williams Lake Air Quality Roundtable

Published: June 05, 2009 7:00 PM

People like drive-thrus.  So do fast food chains, since drive-thrus supply more than half of their business.

Banks have now gotten into the act, and there are even plans for drive-thru pharmacies.

You can enjoy a donut and coffee, burger and fries, transfer funds to your chequing account, and fill your prescriptions without ever leaving the car.  No problem.

Except, that is, for a little environmental problem caused by people idling their cars in drive-thru lineups.  Idling is when the motor is running but the car doesn’t move.

Forty-five seconds of idling burns the same amount of fuel it takes to drive one kilometer.

Calculations drawn from a Canadian survey (NRCan’s website) of driving habits and behaviour suggest that many Canadian motorists idle their vehicles for about eight minutes a day (especially in the winter) resulting in a combined total of more than 75 million minutes of idling a day.

This day alone uses more than 2.2 million litres of fuel and produces more than five million kilograms of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and is equal to the amount of fuel required to drive more than 1100 vehicles for a year or to idle one vehicle for 144 years!

The popularity of drive-thrus means longer lines and longer wait times, which means more idling.  Environmentalists, city governments, and TV reporters have noticed.

A CBC news team recently staked out a restaurant drive-thru in Winnipeg for one hour, and not long before that natural resource economists from the University of Alberta observed a restaurant in Edmonton for 54 hours.

In both cases the average wait for every car was just over 5 minutes.

Their study also found that motorists in Edmonton spent almost 5,000 hours idling at drive-thrus annually; it was also estimated that, at a single fast-food outlet outlet, the carbon dioxide emissions were 385 kg per day, or about the same amount of emissions as 17,300 SUVs create on the road.

And what about the potential health hazard to drivers essentially bathing in fumes while waiting in line or the staff who are serving at the windows and have no choice but to breath this in?

The provincial health officer has identified fine particulates (one of the pollutants in vehicle emissions) as the most serious form of air pollution in B.C. when it comes to direct impacts on people’s health.

To top it off, idling for just 15 minutes a week (say, two minutes and a bit for a coffee every day) burns through an extra $60 to $100 of fuel a year, and with the rise in fuel costs we are seeing these days, this will only increase.

If this were in Toronto, London, Niagara Falls, Richmond or any other Canadian city with anti-idling rules, they would also be breaking the law.  Idling bylaws usually make three minutes the legal cutoff.

Other sources such as Natural Resources Canada division of the federal government recommend cutting the engine after 10 seconds.  After that you’re wasting more gas than you would use to restart your car. They focus heavily on what is good for your vehicle — and your wallet.

They report that restarting your car has little impact on the starter and fuel pump:

Any wear and tear incurred is more than made up in the fuel savings.

More than anything, cars and trucks are not designed to idle.

Excessive idling can cause grease, grime and other build-up to accumulate on other engine parts.

Plus, if every Canadian motorist avoided idling for just three minutes every day of the year, carbon dioxide emissions could be reduced by 1.4 million tonnes annually. This would be equal to saving 630 million litres of fuel and equivalent to taking 320,000 cars off of the road for the entire year.

Eliminating unnecessary idling is one easy action that Canadians can take to reduce their GHG emissions that are contributing to climate change

Everyone agrees, however, that idling comes down to every driver’s choices. So, next time you’re in a rush to get a coffee, why not beat the smog-filled line-up snaking around the building and just park.

Chances are you’ll be in and out faster than you would if you were still waiting in the drive-thru.

Beverley J. Anderson is the air quality educator for the Williams Lake Environmental Society, in partnership with the Williams Lake Air Quality Roundtable.

Phone 250-392-5997 or e-mail for more information.


Expert’s advice: Don’t waste gas in idle time at fast-food windows

Expert’s advice: Don’t waste gas in idle time at fast-food windows

Friday, June 05, 2009


Robert Davis has a pet peeve.

The retired Navy submariner and PECO energy-efficiency expert sees long lines of vehicles sitting in line at fast-food restaurant drive-through windows and it drives him crazy.

Davis is no off-the-wall crackpot. He has done his homework, counting cars at fast-food joints near his home in South Lebanon Twp., doing research and interviewing the owner of one of the stores.

The way Davis figures it, drivers waste $103,000 or more in gas a year waiting in line for food at just those three restaurants. That’s a considerable amount of money for people to sit and wait for a burger and fries — while tables inside sit empty.

“It’s a big waste,” said Davis, 74. “I talked to the owner at the place down the road. He said 75 percent of his business is at the drive-through.”

So, what is the solution?

Davis has one of those, “well, DOH!” answers.

“People should just go into the store,” he said. “Half the time you go in and the drive-through will have a long line, and the inside isn’t busy at all. The only ones using the windows should be the disabled or people with kids in the back of the car. Is that good sense, or what? What’s hard about that?”

Critics have long said drive-through restaurants add to pollution and waste resources and fuel the nation’s collective obesity.

National Restaurant Association officials have said, through prepared statements, that the choice to use the drive-through or go inside is one made by consumers.

So, is the drive-through really faster?

In an admittedly unscientific test, a crack investigative team — namely, this reporter — picked a fast-food franchise at random in Lower Paxton Twp. at lunchtime Thursday to see how the drive-through compared to getting lunch from the counter.

There were eight vehicles in line. The 4×4 pickup ahead of us jackrabbited away each time the sedan in front of him moved forward. He gunned to the window too fast and stopped too far away to grab the bag from the attendant. He had to lean way out the window to get his lunch and change. Very cool.

The elapsed time from when we entered the line until we were handed the bag of food? Nine minutes, not including the time spent sticking change into a pocket after we left the line.

We parked, walked in, and ordered a coffee to go with the sandwich.

It took seven minutes, from car door to car door.

OK, it was only two minutes faster. But that was seven minutes when the car was not running.

Using the information that Davis has collected, the average wait in a drive-through line uses enough gas to go five to six miles. Those seven vehicles in line ahead of us sucked down enough fuel to drive about 40 miles.

By the way, about half of the tables inside the restaurant were open. At lunchtime.

Davis and a herd of environmentalists and economists with him believe that if Americans simply become more efficient in their lifestyles, dependence on imported oil would no longer be an issue.

“How many guys have spilled their blood so that we can drive our cars?” Davis asked, rhetorically. “We have to be more mindful of what we’re doing.