Engine Idling: The Impact on the Environment & Laws You May Not Be Aware Of
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We know our cars have an impact on the environment, but it’s how we use them that can really affect how detrimental driving is to the world around us. Engine idling is one of the behaviours we can easily change. People may run their engine without moving to warm up the car on a cold day or while they are stopped in traffic or waiting for someone.
However, idling your engine does more harm than good. And not just for the environment. There are rules around when you shouldn’t leave your car running – in this guide, we cover the details.
- What is engine idling?
- Why is engine idling harmful?
- Is engine idling illegal?
- What will happen if I get caught with the engine running while my car is stationary?
- How does engine idling affect my car?
- How can I avoid engine idling?
- Do I need to worry about engine idling if I can have a car with a stop-start system?
- What is being done to tackle air pollution in the UK?
What is engine idling?
Engine idling is leaving a vehicle’s engine running while it isn’t moving. Sometimes engine idling is unavoidable, for example, if you’re in nose-to-tail traffic that stops and starts. At other times, it’s unnecessary, for example if you’re waiting for someone or traffic isn’t moving any time soon.
Why is engine idling harmful?
Engine idling releases more exhaust fumes into the air than when the car is moving, which is bad for the environment and our health.
Exhaust fumes contain carbon dioxide, which traps heat in the atmosphere and contributes towards global warming. This rise in average temperatures causes more severe weather, such as heatwaves, storms, and floods; destroys habitats and ecosystems; and could lead to people having to leave places due to them becoming uninhabitable.
Government statistics published in 2022 show that in 2020:
- 79% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions were made up of carbon dioxide
- Emissions from transport were down 19.2% compared to 2019, due to the pandemic
- However, transport was still the sector responsible for the highest amount of emissions – 24% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the UK
Provisional figures have been released for 2021, and although they’ve yet to be confirmed, these estimates can give us an indicator of how getting back to a more normal way of life post pandemic has affected the UK’s emissions:
- Carbon dioxide emissions increased by 6.3% in 2021 compared to 2020
- Carbon dioxide emissions from the transport sector rose 10% in 2021 compared to 2020
While the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions have generally been decreasing since 1990, average global temperatures are still rising quickly.
Exhaust fumes contain carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and hydrocarbons. These gases are linked to cardiovascular and respiratory conditions, including asthma and lung cancer. In fact, poor air quality is ‘the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK’.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has found that almost the entire global population (99% of people) breathes air that exceeds WHO air quality guidelines. These guidelines, which aren’t legally binding but give governments targets to consider, recommend levels for common air pollutants.
Data from Public Health England estimates that long-term exposure to man-made air pollution has an effect that’s equivalent to between 28,000 and 36,000 deaths per year. Their research also suggests that reducing air pollution could prevent:
- 50,900 cases of coronary heart disease
- 16,500 strokes
- 9,300 cases of asthma
- 4,200 lung cancers
Is engine idling illegal?
Yes. Under Section 42 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, engine idling is an offence.
The Highway Code also has a rule against engine idling. Rule 123 states:
|“You MUST NOT leave a parked vehicle unattended with the engine running or leave a vehicle engine running unnecessarily while that vehicle is stationary on a public road. Generally, if the vehicle is stationary and is likely to remain so for more than a couple of minutes, you should apply the parking brake and switch off the engine to reduce emissions and noise pollution. However, it is permissible to leave the engine running if the vehicle is stationary in traffic or for diagnosing faults.”|
In the Highway Code, the words ‘must’ and ‘must not’ indicate legal requirements. Other parts of the Code use ‘should’, ‘should not’, ‘do’, and ‘do not’ and while violating these rules isn’t a criminal offence, it can still be used against you in court.
This law only applies to public roads, so it’s not illegal to leave your engine running while your car’s on private property (for example, on your drive). However, it’s best practice to switch the engine off if you’re going to be waiting for a while. Not only is this better for health and the environment, it’s also better for your vehicle.
It’s also good not to get into the habit of leaving your car’s engine running while you’re not in it. In addition to the reasons above, it offers opportunist criminals the chance to steal or cause some kind of damage to your vehicle.
What will happen if I get caught with the engine running while my car is stationary?
Drivers caught engine idling will be issued a fixed penalty notice if they refuse to switch their engine off by authorised personnel. This fine is:
- £20 initially
- £40 if you don’t pay the initial fine within 28 days
- £80 if you don’t pay the £40 within 14 days