Making Wellesley Idling-Free

By Marlene O’Brien/Special to the Townsman

Tue Mar 17, 2009, 05:50 PM EDT

Wellesley –
Last Tuesday evening, Feb. 24, as part of the Wellesley Cancer Prevent Buy generic viagra pills Project’s ongoing efforts to make the town of Wellesley “idling-free,” the WCPP presented an educational program on the specific dangers of idling engines and on the successes of other communities in the commonwealth to reduce idling. Co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Wellesley, the program featured a public health policy expert and a leading activist in anti-idling campaigns throughout Massachusetts.

State law generally prohibits drivers from idling anywhere “for a foreseeable period of time in excess of five minutes,” and in particular at or near public and private schools, athletic fields and playgrounds used for school purposes (“regardless of proximity to a school building”). However, many drivers in Wellesley and elsewhere remain unaware of the law or choose to disregard it.

Proven Hazards of Idling
Scott Keays, the American Lung Association’s public policy manager in Massachsuetts, explained the underlying rationale for the law: the immediately harmful effects of the dozens of toxins emitted by vehicles, include carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter. He described how these toxins generally combine to form ozone, or smog, and concentrate in common idling areas, such as by schools — and how they come to pose hazards to those most vulnerable in our society, including children, the elderly and those with pre-existing heart and lung conditions.
For those who were skeptical about the magnitude of the perils that emissions pose, Keays included detail on the inner workings of human lungs and how toxins specifically interfere with the ability of the lungs’ alveoli, for example, to help ensure the transfer of oxygen to the rest of the body. He reported on the American Lung Association’s findings on the steadily increasing prevalence of asthma, cystic fibrosis and acute respiratory infections among children, then explained why this disturbing pattern increases the urgency of reducing their exposure to toxic emissions.

Exacerbating the Hazards: Poor Air Quality in Mass.
Residents seemed alarmed to learn that the rate of asthma in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts exceeds the national average. According to the ALA, almost 10 percent of adults in Massachusetts have been diagnosed with asthma, compared with 8.4 percent nationwide; almost 11 percent of Massachusetts students in grades K to eight have been diagnosed as asthmatic, compared with 9.4 percent nationwide. One cause, according to Keays, is the commonwealth’s overall air quality, which he said is particularly poor when compared with air quality in other states and regions.
Key contributing factors, Keays said, are that Massachusetts has a high concentration of cars (over 4.2 million), a relatively high concentration of diesel trucks and buses, and more than 9,000 school buses and vehicles transporting nearly 750,000 students to school each day. Also critical, Keays added, is the fact that toxins emitted by Midwestern states and carried by the jet stream tend to settle disproportionately in Massachusetts.

Practical Advice to Drivers
Keays’ simple advice to drivers: “Idling in unnecessary and literally gets you nowhere. Here are some solutions: purchase LEV or hybrid cars; tune-up your car regularly; travel at moderate, steady speeds; on hot or cold days, limit travel for the elderly and for pets; and reduce miles traveled.” As a community, he suggested that Wellesley enforce the idle-free laws, install additional idle-free signs where appropriate, and continue to educate drivers.

Common misperceptions on idling need to be publicized. Keays pointed out, for example, that all combustion devices, including those in hybrid vehicles, release pollutants, and that 10 seconds of idling uses more fuel than restarting the engine. It was pointed out that frequent restarting has little impact on engine components such as the battery and the starter motor. Keays also noted that eliminating five minutes of idling each day can save, at today’s gasoline prices, approximately $250 a year, and that avoiding idling will reduce wear and tear on engine components, including cylinders, spark plugs and the exhaust system.

Richard Gregg, an anti-idling activist who also spoke at the WCPP’s program Tuesday evening, said that he has found that drivers in communities across the commonwealth idle out of habit, saying, “I’ve always done it this way,” and out of a perceived need for comfort or to warm up their vehicles. They typically tend to idle, he reported, when dropping off or picking up students from school, when using a cell phone, when waiting in line at an ATM drive-through or waiting for someone at a shop or business, and when trying to keep warm in various situations. They also tend to idle in their own and other residential driveways, and at churches and other gathering places.

Wellesley is no exception. According to WCPP President Sara Azzam, whose organization has worked in recent years to educate residents on risks associated with pesticides, personal hair products and other sources, idling clearly poses hazards and yet occurs throughout the town. “I find it everywhere in Wellesley. It really is amazing how many people leave their vehicles idling just to run errands” at the grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants that provide take-out, Dunkin’ Donuts and Blockbuster.

Changing a Town’s Idling Habits

Trying to change idling in any community is challenging, according to Gregg. “Many people resist changing their idling habits when the hazards are pointed out directly to them, for a few reasons: They believe in the right to do whatever they want, even if it involves hurting other people; they want to deny the consequences of their behavior; they are ignorant of, or disregard, the anti-idling law; or they are embarrassed.” Gregg said. “Broad-based public awareness campaigns about the health, environmental, economic and vehicle-life span benefits of reducing unnecessary idling are needed.”

Azzam, agreed. “A huge education campaign needs to happen,” she said. She suggested that a recent letter to parents from Wellesley Public Schools Superintendent Bella Wong, together with new no-idling signage, have been helpful, but much more needs to be done.

“I think [changing idling habits] will take some time and education, but it will be worth it,” said Azzam. “I also think we may have to get the organizations involved, like the schools — which we have begun to do, starting with Fiske — and also the establishments where folks are most likely to idle.”

Recent anti-idling efforts at Fiske were “well received” and included distribution to parents of anti-idling “pledge cards,” according to Amanda Zarle, a WCPP board member. Zarle added that the WCPP plans to help kick off campaigns at schools throughout the town and “will also try to link up with the individual school ‘green’ teams to help spread the word.”

Marlene O’Brien, president of the LWV of Wellesley, praised the anti-idling efforts of the WCPP and its organization of the program. “We’ve learned that scientific data shows that if we keep alert and turn off our engines whenever possible instead of idling, we can directly benefit the health of the most vulnerable of our residents, especially children and seniors with asthma. Plus, reducing idling can reduce wear and tear on our cars and can save gas. A win-win proposition! I think we owe WCPP President Sara Azzam, WPS Superintendent Bella Wong and League members Mary Ann Cluggish and Irene Flint, all of whom have shown leadership on this issue, a debt of gratitude.”

Despite the challenges to reducing idling in Wellesley, Azzam remains optimistic. “I do know that the Wellesley community is concerned with the health and well-being of themselves and others, so I hope habits will change,” she said.

This program can be viewed on WCAC-TV over the next several weeks.