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American Idle

Each year in the United States, idling trucks and cars burn several billion gallons of fuel, emitting various pollutants without driving a single mile. The Texas Legislature passed legislation in 2005 limiting big trucks to five minutes of idling time, but local governments aren't obligated to enforce the law, and the debate over exemptions continues to roil.

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Each year in the United States, idling trucks and cars burn several billion gallons of fuel, emitting nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and greenhouse gases without driving a single mile.

In 2005, the Texas Legislature attempted to quiet the rumbling motors. That year, a law passed prohibiting vehicles larger than 14,000 pounds — a Ford F-450 or larger, for example — from idling longer than five minutes during the summertime. The move came after earlier efforts to crack down on idling in Austin, where officials were especially concerned about pollution.

Five years later, the law has had some impact, but it has plenty of gaps. It does not require the whole state to adhere to it — so only North Central Texas and Central Texas have signed on. The rules are in effect only from April 1 through Oct. 31 because they are designed to improve air quality, which can get dangerously bad in the summer heat. Passenger cars and many other types of larger vehicles are exempted from the law.

The 2005 legislation gave the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, the authority to set up the program. Loose groupings of local governments, known as councils of governments, sign agreements with the state that allow them to enforce the rules. Cities and counties in those areas then pass ordinances setting the amount of fines. But most parts of Texas don't bother. "It's been kind of slow going in getting local governments to go through that process," says Ramon Alvarez, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. Among those signed up are the cities of Dallas and Austin, as well as surrounding areas.

Restless truckers

Since 2005, according to Dallas municipal court records, local police have slapped truckers with more than $132,000 in idling fines, though only about $59,000 of that has been paid. The Austin area — though it has fewer truck stops than Dallas — also has agreed to enforce the law, typically after people "complain about a big truck idling out in front of their business," says Bill Gill, the air quality program manager at the Capital Area Council of Governments.

Ironically — and to the irritation of truckers — the law became stronger last year when a key provision expired. The 2005 legislation exempted truckers using sleeping berths in their vehicles for required rest. The federal government typically requires truckers to get 10 hours of rest every 24 hours so they can operate their vehicles safely. And truckers need to turn on the heat or the air conditioning, especially in Texas, to sleep comfortably. But the exemption for truckers using sleeping berths expired last year.

"How can you expect a driver to obtain government-mandated rest when it's this kind of heat and he's pulled over in a parking spot?" asks John Esparza, president and chief executive of the Texas Motor Transportation Association, which lobbied in vain for the extension of the exemption during the last legislative session. (Kip Averitt, the now-retired Republican senator from Waco, carried the Senate bill; Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, carried it in the House.) Esparza's group plans another push in the upcoming session — but even so, he points out, truckers in Texas have faced the additional problem that the police may knock on the door of their cab to check if they are really sleeping, thus conceivably disrupting their rest.

The TCEQ is researching how to address the expired provisions, according to Guy Hoffman, the agency's mobile source programs team leader. In other words, TCEQ could come out with draft rules of its own that extend the sleeping-berth exemption, potentially without the need for legislative changes. Another exemption that expired last year — and could also be addressed by the TCEQ — prohibits trucks with sleeper berths from idling too close to schools or hospitals. The rule-changing process, which includes public hearings, takes about a year to 18 months, Hoffman said.

A national concern

Well over half the states have some form of anti-idling rules, typically prohibiting idling for as short a duration as three minutes, according to a state-by-state summary from the American Transportation Research Institute. Many include a special focus on idling near schools.

Cutting off the motor, of course, saves money by reducing fuel consumption, though that hasn't stopped truckers from idly burning gas and accruing fines. It also cuts down on emissions of nitrogen oxides, a precursor to ozone. That's an issue of particular concern in Texas, because Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and Beaumont are currently classified as "non-attainment" areas, meaning that their air pollution exceeds Environmental Protection Agency guidelines. Austin and several other areas in the state teeter on the edge of non-attainment and could get pushed into that category by new ozone rules expected this year from the EPA.

The Texas law has a number of exemptions, including vehicles belonging to the military, national guard, emergency personnel, police and airport ground support. The National Armored Car Association — whose members operate vehicles packed with money or other valuables — is awaiting action on its petition to be exempted from the rules. Drivers stuck in traffic, of course, also do not get penalized for idling.

Technology may solve some of the problems. About 5 percent of trucks nationally have small auxiliary power units that function separately from the main engine, according to Esparza. These may be powered by diesel or increasingly batteries and do not get caught in idling laws. But the power units cost about $8,000 each — a potentially prohibitive sum, especially in a bad economy. "The last 18 months especially [have not been] a good time for companies to go out and try something new," Esperaza says.

Regular truck engines are also getting cleaner. Big trucks are likely to prove too weighty for electric propulsion to work. But the energy magnate T. Boone Pickens is preaching the virtues of natural gas-powered 18-wheelers. If he ever wins his perpetual fight in Congress to incentivize more of those, trucking emissions could fall, though turning over the fleet inevitably takes time. Esparza notes that Arlington-based Cummins Southern Plains, among other companies, distributes an engine certified as clean-burning in the mother of all environmental regulation hubs, California.

"Technology continues to advance and advance and advance," Esparza says.

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