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Idling engines do the devil's work – and they're often illegal

California v. Trump on auto emissions

When it's cold outside, getting inside a car that has been warmed up before that morning commute is a pleasure. And it's easy to do if your car has a remote starter. But in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, warming up the car while you wait inside could cost you up to $1,000.

The traditional wisdom is that a car that has idled for a while before driving is more efficient than one driven cold. Not so, says Go Green Wilmette. "Most engines do not need more than a few seconds of idling time before they can be driven safely," according to the environmental website. And turning a car off and on again to avoid idling doesn't cause engine damage, drain the battery or waste gas.

In fact, just the opposite, notes e3sparkplugs.com. Idling consumes less fuel than turning the car off and on. Just how much? "For every two minutes that the car is idling, it uses about the same amount of fuel it takes to go nearly a mile," the site said.

But since some people always need more convincing, the Harrisburg police department got involved. During the severe cold that gripped Pennsylvania's capital city last month, the department said it would issue warnings aimed at curbing the increase in stolen cars that occurs during the winter -- when drivers leave vehicles running and unattended.

These written warnings placed on windshields would be followed up by "fines of up to $1,000 for future infractions." The warnings are only for idling vehicles on public streets, not in driveways. But your car isn't exactly safe even if parked on your property. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation advises drivers to "make sure it's locked," and the state motor vehicle code makes it illegal to leave a car idling.

Thieves target "puffers"

"Statistics show that more than 190 vehicles were stolen in 2018, the majority of which occurred during winter," said the Harrisburg police. Officers call these car thieves "puffers" because they drive around looking for white smoke coming out of tailpipes. And if the driver's seat is empty, they'll be the next driver.

Pennsylvania isn't the only place where idling vehicles are illegal. New York City bristles with anti-idling signs on many streets, particularly those where tourist buses park as their passengers are explore the city. A vehicle idling more than three minutes violates the city code, which allows for just one minute of idling if the vehicle is near a school.

Oh yeah, there's also the inadvertent problem of having to chase your idling car down the street, if you didn't leave it in park with the hand brake on, police warn.

Harmful gasses

Motor vehicle emissions have improved in recent years. But cars, trucks and buses still belch out a lot of harmful carbon monoxide and other poisons that can cause allergies, asthma and cancer, as well as heart and lung disease. Idling also produces unburned fuel, which can gum up the engine. And according to The Union of Concerned Scientists, idling is a factor in global warming.

Individual "puffer" car thefts may be covered by auto insurance, if "comprehensive" coverage is part of the policy. Since the insurance industry is aware of the places where cars are stolen, insurers assign higher rates to these areas based on the number of thefts, accidents and other problems in certain zip codes.

That's why Detroit has the highest insurance rates in the country, with car owners paying an average of $10,723 a year -- 10 times higher than Winston-Salem, North Carolina. And according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, Anchorage, Alaska, is second. Lots of cold weather up there.

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