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.

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