In Depth

Engine idling: current laws, penalties and proposed changes

Councils may soon issue on-the-spot fines to offending drivers

Drivers may soon face instant fines if they leave their engine running while stationary in traffic. 

Environment Secretary Michael Gove has backed calls to give local councils the ability to penalise drivers who are caught with their engines running on multiple occasions. But he stressed the fines should be used “proportionally”, The Times reports. 

Councils say that idling engines cause unnecessary pollution as cars can produce “higher exhaust emissions” when they are not moving than when in motion, the newspaper says. 

Engine idling is already an offence in the UK and drivers can face fines if caught.

The new laws, if given the green light, would allow councils to fine offending drivers without warning. 

Westminster City Council has also “urged” the Government to allow for penalties of around £1,000 for companies whose drivers are repeatedly caught with their engine running, The Guardian reports. 

The council, which has issued 37 fines to drivers for engine idling since 2017, claims that “delivery drivers and commercial vehicles were the worst offenders”, the newspaper adds. 

What has been the response?

Gove’s backing of instant fines for drivers who leave their engines running has been welcomed by council members. 

Adam Harrison, cabinet member for environment at Camden Council in north London, said that instant fines would send “a very clear message that drivers across the land would hear”, reports the Times.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Grigg, a professor at Queen Mary University of London, told the paper that fines should be handed out to people who leave their engine idling outside places where vulnerable people could be exposed to air pollution, such as GP surgeries and schools. 

“The days of warning people are over, we need to move to more standard enforcement,” he added. “There will be howls of outrage but as soon as people know they are going to be fined they will be much more careful.”

But Nickie Aiken, head of Westminster City Council, says “we need to change the way people think about engine idling” and that fines “should be a last resort”, The Independent reports. 

“Having spoken to more than 20,000 drivers so far, our air quality marshals found that most who idle do so out of habit,” she said. “Once they know the damage it causes, including the health risks, and they’re asked to switch off the engine, they do and think twice before idling again.”

What is engine idling?

Engine idling is when a driver leaves their engine running when the vehicle is stationary. This is often done while sitting in traffic, or waiting to pick someone up. 

While the practice seems innocuous, a vehicle is still emitting harmful exhaust gases when its engine is idling, the RAC says. These include carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide.

Not only are these harmful to the environment, but they also have an impact on pedestrians and are linked to “asthma and other lung diseases”, the breakdown service says.  

What are the current laws?

Drivers can already be fined for leaving their engine running. 

Under section 42 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, local councils can hand drivers a fixed penalty of £20 for leaving their engine running “unnecessarily while that vehicle is stationary on a public road”, reports confused.com. The penalty rises to £40 if it is not paid within a certain time. 

Penalties can be as high as £80 in certain areas of London “where extra measures to cut road emissions are being undertaken”, the comparison website says.

However, fines can run into the thousands of pounds if drivers are caught by police.

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