Editorial: Idling Public Employees

With gasoline in the vicinity of $4.00 a gallon you probably don’t leave your car idling for very long. When you’re idling you’re getting zero miles per gallon. That’s why cars with so-called “stop-start” technology have become more common. Basically those cars shut off the engine whenever you’re sitting still for more than a second or two, and then restart it when you need to accelerate again, as when you stop for a red light and it changes to green. The Honda CR-Z that I tested for The Truth About Cars is a mild hybrid with stop-start. It uses an electric motor that both provides engine assist and starts the engine up almost instantaneously when the stop-start system is engaged. The system works. I tried very hard to fake out the stop-start system but no matter how I tried, I could not get the car in gear without the stop-start system getting the engine running first. It works that fast – and it does save a significant amount of fuel.

Between technical solutions to the problem of vehicles wasting fuel idling in traffic and drivers shutting off their vehicles when they’ll be sitting for a while, it’s rarer and rarer to see cars and trucks just sitting there with their engines on. Well, that is, in the private sector. I do see cars and trucks idling these days but more often than not they are government vehicles driven by public employees who think nothing of wasting fuel since they aren’t paying for that fuel themselves. In fact they see wasting taxpayers’ money as a perk of their job.

The same public employee unions that support increasing the power of the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases (and hire more public employees) have members who waste our fuel and  dump CO2 into our air while supposedly working for us. If you politely mention to some of those employees that they should treat the public’s gasoline and diesel fuel as dearly as if they payed for it themselves (I’ll pause while you regain your composure after laughing so hard at the thought) some will actually be polite, agree with you and shut off the car or truck. Others will do so but resentfully. The rest will stand there and try to make up some excuse that usually comes down to their own convenience. The problem exists across the board, from local governments to Washington, D.C. Three years ago, Senator Chuck Grassley complained about it.

Each and every day, there are likely dozens, if not hundreds of federal government SUVs and sedans idling for hours in Washington alone while waiting for their passengers. Some of the biggest culprits of this practice are vehicles attending to cabinet secretaries, deputy secretaries and assistant secretaries. I understand that in some cases the idling may be necessary. But, I would imagine that in an overwhelming majority of the situations there is no reason for a car or SUV to remain idling for hours on end. Surely there are simple and painless steps the federal government could take to do its part to reduce energy use, including eliminating this wasteful behavior.

While there is no federal anti-idling law (at least regarding passenger vehicles – I believe that there are new DOT regulations that control how long over the road trucks can idle at truck stops), about 30 states and dozens of cities and counties around the country have restrictions on idling.

And then there are the police. Even when there are anti-idling laws there are usually exceptions for the police. I can’t recall a single time in recent memory where I’ve seen a police car at the side of the road and it wasn’t running. Can you? Now I’m sure, based on previous conversations with LEOs, those officers will say that the car needs to be running to save time in an emergency. That’s usually the excuse they give when the park in fire lanes in front of donut shops, restaurants and wherever else they may feel like parking. However, remember that Honda CR-Z? With stop-start systems proliferating, and cars being very very reliable these days (particularly cars that are regularly serviced as police cars are) the notion that the fraction of a second it takes for to turn the key to start the car would be an unnecessary delay when life or death is in the balance is ludicrous. The time it takes for them to walk to the cruiser from wherever they are getting their donuts or food is far more significant, but every police union insists on meal breaks and I’ve never heard a LEO say that he or she would forgo a meal on account of my children’s safety.

The reality is that cops leave cop cars running because they can and nobody will call them out for wasting our gasoline. They like to sit in air conditioned comfort while they are generating revenue in a speed trap. Like all public employees cops like the perks of their jobs. They like having “professional courtesy” extended so they rarely get traffic tickets when off duty. They like driving high performance cars and they like having free gasoline to burn while they sit idle and idling at the side of the road.

So the next time you see a public employee leaving their vehicle idling, ask them if they’d be doing that if it was their own gasoline.


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