As the days grow colder, Salt Lake Valley residents are more likely to run their engines as they warm up their cars in the morning or wait for their kids at school pickup in the afternoon.
In a number of Salt Lake County municipalities, idling is technically illegal. But it’s also unlikely a driver will be cited or even get a warning for doing it, according to data obtained from a series of records requests filed by The Salt Lake Tribune. The newspaper could confirm only one citation issued over the past 10 months in the six cities with anti-idling ordinances.
Those findings come as Utah enters its winter inversion season — in which bad air caused in part by tailpipe emissions is trapped in the Salt Lake Valley — and months after state lawmakers passed a new bill that was supposed to make it easier for cities to enforce their idling ordinances.
Ashley Miller, vice chair of the board of directors for Breathe Utah, said the ordinances as they stand are mostly symbolic, providing value through public education but offering little incentive for people to turn off their cars.
“An ordinance like this — unless there’s teeth to it — really isn’t a good deterrent for people,” she said.
But city leaders say they face challenges in enforcing idling bans because of a lack of resources as overstretched officers work on more important policing work. There’s also no way to track tickets across municipalities, meaning a driver could get a warning in every city in the county and never receive a citation.
That’s one of the reasons why South Jordan Mayor Dawn Ramsey said her city recently opted to pass a nonbinding anti-idling resolution instead of an ordinance.
“The resolution [signals] the desire for our community to adhere to an idle-free way of life,” she said. “But, yes, we chose not to go with an ordinance because it isn’t something that our police can really enforce.”
Among the cities with idling ordinances on the books, Salt Lake City has been the most active, with code enforcement officers issuing nine warnings since January. Three of those were issued to one person, who ended up receiving what is likely the only citation issued by officers in Salt Lake County so far in 2019.
“We have the advantage that we do have an enforcement mechanism built in,” said Vicki Bennett, the city’s sustainability department director. “We have the staff, we have the ordinance, and so it does allow us to enforce. And if we really would have a bad actor, eventually we could issue fines. And so I think that puts us, at least for Salt Lake City, at the level we would want to stay at.”
SALT LAKE COUNTY CITIES WITH IDLING ORDINANCES
• Cottonwood Heights
• Salt Lake City
• South Salt Lake
Sandy police issued one idling citation in July, but it was later voided.
Both South Salt Lake and Murray told The Tribune they had no records of idling citations over the past nine months.
The Unified Police Department, which provides service to Holladay and other cities in the Salt Lake County area, said it could not do a specific search for citations or warnings for idling in the city or in unincorporated areas because of limitations with its records management system. Cottonwood Heights did not provide data to the newspaper in time for publication of this story.
Enforcement doesn’t appear to have been impacted by a new state law passed earlier this year that reduced from three to one the number of warnings officers were required to give a person before they could issue a citation. State Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek and the bill’s sponsor, had originally wanted to eliminate the requirement for any warning citations but that idea failed in committee.
Advocates of idling ordinances have long argued that the main purpose behind them is to educate the public on the air-quality benefits that turning off cars can have, and in this way Arent said the law is making a difference — even though it may not be reflected in enforcement.
“One of the other really effective things is just telling people it’s in violation of the law,” she said. “I will often knock on someone’s car window and say, ‘I just want to make sure you don’t get a ticket.’ ... I do it in a really positive way trying to help them so they don’t get mad at me. And you’d be surprised how many people stop.”
Vehicles have for years been among the state’s biggest polluters, with mobile sources contributing around 48% to particulate pollution (known as PM 2.5), though that number is expected to drop over the next few years as technology improves and under stricter federal emissions standards.
And while major air quality solutions also likely need to come from polluting industry and corporations, advocates say not idling is an easy way for individuals to help clear the air.
“We really just want people’s behaviors to change, right?” said Miller, who was involved in the drafting of Arent’s bill earlier this year. “We want people to get used to the mentality that they don’t need to use their car’s heater to defrost the windows. You can use an ice scraper. You get in your car and drive instead of letting it sit there and warm up.”
Facing the challenges inherent in addressing idling, Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini has repeatedly said he was uninterested in seeing the council adopt an ordinance its police force couldn’t uphold just to send a message.
But now, “I’m kind of maybe thinking that the message isn’t all bad,” he said. “I still think there are challenges about enforcing it, but in a real scofflaw case where you have somebody that is bullheaded, it could be useful.”
Silvestrini said Millcreek plans to consider adopting an anti-idling ordinance before year’s end.
Correction: Updated at 9:31 a.m. on Nov. 20 >> A previous version of this article gave a previous title for Ashley Miller with Breathe Utah. She is currently the vice chair of the board of directors.