National Post | The real cost of a doughnut

The real cost of a doughnut

Service charge on drive-throughs may offset needless idling

Graeme Fletcher, National Post Published: Friday, January 29, 2010

Peter Redman, National Post On average, drivers idle their cars for eight minutes a day.

Talk about a waste of money. The line of cars snakes its way around the parking lot and out on to the road where it is beginning to block traffic. The object and obsession of all of those waiting in line, all of whom are wasting precious fossil fuel and needlessly pumping greenhouse gases, is a cup of coffee and a doughnut. It really makes no sense. Those smart enough to park, walk in and satisfy the same craving have wasted nothing. In fact, they may just have burned enough calories to atone for a mouthful of that honey-dipped oval.

The discussion over whether or not drive-throughs should be allowed has been waged for years. In some jurisdictions, the drive-through has been banned (those in operation were grand-fathered, which is a pity). The need to wean drivers away from the drive-through window is simple — the needless pollution it pumps into an already fragile atmosphere. As with the hybrid battery debate, addicts use a number of spurious arguments to defend their actions.

The most common argument used by those who twiddle their thumbs in the drive-through line is that it is cheaper to idle-through than to park and then restart their car. In a word, piffle. A car that’s allowed to idle for more than 10 seconds consumes more fuel than the amount needed to restart the vehicle. The argument that suggests restarting the car compromises the life expectancy of the battery and starter motor is likewise ridiculous. Done several thousand times, it may have an effect, but the reality is that needless idling does more damage to the internal components of the engine than cranking the ignition key will ever do.

Another common argument is to point to the fact that the modern car is cleaner and so the pollution is inconsequential. True, if one compares a clunker from 1980 to a new car, there has been a drastic reduction — hydrocarbons have dropped by 98%, carbon monoxide is down 96% and there are 90% fewer nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. However, the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) produced has not changed — every litre of fuel burned produces roughly 2.5 kilograms of CO2.

Another of the anecdotal arguments is, likewise, complete nonsense — that restarting the engine produces more emissions than letting the car idle. As it takes the catalytic converter somewhere around 25 minutes to cool off, the five minutes it takes to park and run inside is nowhere near enough time to have any meaningful effect. Besides, the catalytic converter is now mounted as close to the exhaust manifold as possible and so it gets up to operating temperature in about half the time it used to take, which reduces cold-start pollution in the first place.

The biggest problem with the drive-through is the utter waste of money it represents. Consider the following: Idling a car for five minutes (the wait in line is usually longer) consumes enough fuel to drive four kilometres. Doing this every day means that the wanton idler pours some 51 litres of fuel down the drain every year. Multiply that by the number of cars on the road and the numbers mushroom to staggering heights.

A Canadian survey of driving habits and behaviour suggested that, in the middle of winter‚ many drivers idle their vehicles for eight minutes a day, which results in a combined total of more than 75 million minutes of idling a day. According to the survey, this consumes some 2.2 million litres of fuel and produces more than five million kilograms of greenhouse gases, which is equal to the amount of fuel required to drive more than 1,100 vehicles for a year or to idle one vehicle for 144 years.

Natural Resources Canada’s Idle-Free Zone ( government/idling. cfm) has a handy idling-impact calculator under the Resources banner. According to the calculator, if every driver of a light-duty vehicle in Canada cut his or her idling time by eight minutes a day (the fuel cost used was $0.98 a litre), Canada would reduce the amount of fuel consumed by 1,221,110,867 litres per year, save $1,196,688,650.09 annually and take 2,967,727 tonnes of greenhouse gases out of the air every year. These numbers are mind-boggling. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the number of people who use a drive-through every morning (on a national basis) is equivalent to a city the size of Mississauga, Ont. NRCan’s calculator says the miscreants consume 24,406,692 litres of fuel, which wastes $23,918,558.18 and dumps 59,316,804 kilograms of greenhouse gases into the air every year. The reality is that the number of wanton idlers is likely double or triple this number — there are those who think it’s cool to use the remote starter before hopping into the shower.

For Pete’s sake, let’s stop giving all the tree-hugging types the ammunition they need to install more pedestrian-only zones, bike lanes and, heaven forbid, a tax on those who dare to use an automobile to get into the city.

I am a driver, a gear head and a coffee lover, but if I were the Minister of the Environment for a day, there would be a $1 service charge on every drive-through order. The money collected would be used by the respective outlets to buy the carbon credits needed to offset the pollution their customers’ spew needlessly.

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