The UK has recently been referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to tackle illegal levels of air pollution as set by the European Commission. Vehicle emissions contribute to poor air quality and can have significant health and environmental implications.

Consequently, several local authorities in the UK are taking a stronger stance against unnecessary vehicle idling, as part of several campaigns aiming to tackle air pollution.

What is idling?

Idling in a vehicle refers to sitting stationary with the engine still running. This can occur when there are high amounts of traffic but road users can, at times, allow a car to idle when it is not entirely necessary. An oft cited example is when parents or carers are waiting outside a school for their children.

Why is idling bad?

Cars and other vehicles produce a number of harmful emissions. The exhaust fumes from a stationary car can significantly increase the amount of pollutants in the air. The problem is particularly noticeable in congested urban areas.

Carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter can all contribute to health conditions and damage the environment.

  • Health

According to the Royal College of Physicians an estimated 40,000 deaths each year can be attributed to exposure to outdoor air pollution.

Poor air quality can potentially impact on a number of health conditions. Asthma, heart disease, lung conditions, dementia, obesity and diabetes can all in some way be linked to or exacerbated by air pollution. Vulnerable members of the public, including young children and the elderly, are most at risk of falling victim to poor air quality.

  • Environment

The damaging substances in car exhaust fumes (often referred to as greenhouse gases) have been linked to global warming. 2018 is currently set to be the fourth-hottest year on record. The increase in average global temperatures has been linked to more severe weather and higher sea levels.

What is the law surrounding idling?

According to Rule 123 of the Highway Code drivers must not ‘leave a vehicle engine running unnecessarily while that vehicle is stationary on a public road.’ Road users are encouraged to apply the parking break and switch the engine off when remaining at a standstill for any time period that exceeds a couple of minutes.

Since 1988, stationary idling in a vehicle has been an offence as part of the Road Traffic Act.

However, it is only recently that local authorities have started to implement this rule as a tool to educate drivers and deter unnecessary idling.

A fixed penalty charge of £20 (which increases to £40 if not paid within 28 days) can be issued to those who refuse to turn their vehicle’s engine off when asked to do so by a marshall. Penalty charge notices are issued by local councils and not the police.

Several areas across the country have started to put measures in place to deter idling.

The Tower Hamlets district in London is the latest local authority to implement a tougher approach to those who keep their car engine running unnecessarily. The Tower Hamlets’ #BreatheClean campaign aims to raise awareness by educating drivers on the importance of taking steps to improve air quality. The measures are said to be part of an education campaign that is supported by the availability of enforceable fines where necessary.

The rules do not mean that drivers have to cut their engines at traffic lights. Drivers are permitted to leave their engine running in stationary traffic, when diagnosing a fault with the vehicle or defrosting the windscreen.

Why should I cut my engine when stationary?

As well as contributing to a better environment there are a number of other benefits to cutting your engine when stationary:

  1. Recent data has shown that the pollution produced by cars is more dangerous for those sitting inside the car than those outside on the street. Therefore switching your engine off may reduce the amount of harmful pollution you inhale.
  2. Turning your engine off also helps to reduce noise pollution.
  3. Cutting your engine when stationary can also help to conserve fuel.

It is also important to remember that you should only use your mobile phone when you are safely parked with your vehicle’s engine switched off.