No idle threat

| April 02, 2008

Idle-free zones in truck-stop parking lots, like this one at the TA in Troutville, Va., aren’t uncommon, but few truck stops contain enough such spaces to merit U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognition.

Since police at the giant Hunts Point food terminal in the Bronx, N.Y., began enforcing a five-minute idling limit, the cops seem to start beating on Marjorie and David Struckle’s cab door the moment they pull in.

But when Hailey, their 2-year-old black Labrador retriever, peers out the window at the visitors, the cops tend to move to the next truck in line. “The dog has gotten us out of a lot of tickets,” Marjorie Struckle says.

The Jordanville, N.Y., owner-operators have minimized their idling even without police encouragement. “Our wake-up call came when we started tallying our idling hours,” Struckle says. “We were idling a lot more than we thought we were.”

Using sleeping bags in winter and fans in summer to cut idling, and sticking to 64 mph on their New York-to-Florida produce run, the Struckles have more than doubled the fuel economy of their 1999 Peterbilt 279, from 3.1 mpg to 7 mpg.

“The only thing we can do as truckers about the price of fuel is control our idling and our fuel economy,” Struckle says. “We really should be doing something to help ourselves.”

Whatever their views on politics and the environment, owner-operators undeniably have more incentive than ever in 2008 to cut their idling by any means necessary, as state and local anti-idling laws proliferate, electrified parking spaces and anti-idling grant programs become more common, and diesel prices head toward $4 a gallon.

Truckers who need encouragement will find police nationwide willing to help. “Stricter idling regulations are becoming more common in many regions, and more rules are guaranteed,” says Cummins’ “Idle Talk” brochure promoting the ComfortGuard auxiliary power unit.

In Pennsylvania, for example, legislators and regulators seem to be in a race to determine whether a statewide idling limit becomes a rule or a law. In February, the state Senate unanimously approved a five-minute limit that was before a House committee at press time; meanwhile, the state Environmental Quality Board held hearings on a five-minute limit of its own.

Anti-idling ordinances were traditionally driven by citizen complaints about noise, says Terry Levinson, senior project manager at the Argonne National Laboratory and editor of the monthly National Idling Reduction Network News. “Today, however, air quality is a real driving force,” she says.

State and local laws proliferate in the absence of a federal rule, something the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Bush has steadfastly resisted, Levinson says. “Perhaps after the election, certainly after Jan. 20 of next year, there may be discussion at the federal level, but not before,” she says. “For now, the SmartWay Transportation Partnership is strictly voluntary, and that’s the end of that song.”

EPA does offer a non-binding Model State Idling Law that suggests a limit of five minutes every hour, with penalties including a $150 fine for the driver and/or a $500 fine for the truck owner or the owner of the load/unload location where the idling occurs. It suggests a laundry list of common-sense exemptions – including traffic jams, traffic signals and police instructions, as during inspections – and specifically exempts the running of an APU. It also suggests an exemption for federally mandated sleep periods if the state hasn’t established a grant program to help truckers buy anti-idling equipment, but quickly adds a boldfaced disclaimer: “This is inherently a matter for states to decide in their legislative process.”

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