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After 6 years, only 8 people have been fined under Utah’s idle-free ordinances

Salt Lake City Police say car thefts spike in cold temperature months, because people let their vehicles warm without sitting inside. (PHOTO: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

Eight cities in Utah now have idle-free ordinances in place; laws that could get anyone who leaves their car engine on while parked hit with a heavy fine.

The laws were meant to cut down on air pollution in Utah, a problem that some studies say is responsible for a significant percentage of our state’s lung cancer problems.

But now, six years after the ordinance first arrived in Salt Lake City, have things really gotten any better?

Utah’s idle-free ordinances

Idling Car

Idling your car, in eight cities in Utah, could land you a minor fine. (Photo: Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

Every city has its own laws on letting cars on idle, but the broad strokes are the same. In most of the eight cities that have adopted idle-free ordinances, citizens are not allowed to leave their cars on when they aren’t either driving or stopped at a light.

In most cities, drivers have two minutes to shut their cars down before they start running the risk of getting a ticket. But in Sandy, where the laws are the strictest, you only have one minute to turn off the ignition, whether you’re waiting for your kids to get out of school or just sitting in the McDonald’s drive-through.

Theoretically speaking, that means you could even get fined for warming your car up in your own drive-way before starting your day. Salt Lake City’s ordinance only protects drivers warming up their cars if they need to defrost the window to see — although, in practice, there haven’t been any reports of anyone getting a ticket at their own home.

It seems like a law that every person who has ever been caught in a long line at a fast-food drive-through has broken, but not a lot of tickets have been handed out.

Since 2012, police have handed out 62 warnings to drivers idling their cars, but only eight people have actually been handed citations.

In a way, this is the law working as intended. Salt Lake City’s idle-free ordinance promises that anyone caught for the first time will only get a warning. A second offense can land you a fine of $160, while a third can bring that fine up to $210, but drivers get a $110 discount as long as they pay within ten days.

The laws, then, haven’t exactly bankrupted Utah’s civilians. For the most part, they’ve been more a threat than something actually put into practice; but has that threat actually managed to change people’s behavior?

An effort to change attitudes

Idle Free

A “Be Idle Free” sign outside of a Utah public school. (Deseret News)

Air pollution has actually improved in Utah over the last few years, but, according to the Sutherland Institute, there’s no real reason to believe that change has anything to do with the government regulations. Instead, the improving air quality in Utah likely has more to do with technological advancements over the last few years.

Supporters of the idle-free movement, though, say that their main goal isn’t to make Utahns terrified to leave their cars on. Instead, they just want to change social attitudes.

Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Salt Lake City, during a celebration for the 11th anniversary of the Governor’s idle-free declaration, told the crowd: “We want to make idling as socially unacceptable as throwing litter out your car window.”

The movement, apparently, worked on Arent herself. When Salt Lake City first proposed the ordinance, she was one of its more vocal critics, complaining that the idea amounted to “micromanaging” cities.

It’s hard to measure how much it’s actually changed attitudes for the rest of the public, but its supporters are holding out hope that their movement is going to change the way we think about driving.

More to the story

Not everybody agrees that these ordinances are a good idea. When KSL Newsradio’s Dave & Dujanovic talked about this story on the air, Dave Noriega said: “This is classic legislation that makes you feel good but changes nothing.”

If you missed their conversation live on KSL Newsradio, you can still catch everything they had to say on the Dave & Dujanovic podcast.

Dave & Dujanovic can be heard weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon on KSL Newsradio. Users can find the show on the KSL Newsradio website and app, as well as Apple Podcasts and Google Play.

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