Why do Canadians idle?

Warming up or cooling down a vehicle is the most common reason given for idling‚ in the winter and summer. Surveys show that Canadians also idle their vehicles for many other reasons that include:

  • waiting for passengers
  • stopping at railway crossings
  • waiting to park
  • running quick errands
  • sitting in drive-through lanes
  • waiting to refuel or to have the car washed
  • stopping to talk to an acquaintance or friend
  • preparing to leave the house

Calculations drawn from a Canadian survey of driving habits and behaviour1 suggest that in the peak of winter‚ many Canadian motorists idle their vehicles for about eight minutes a day‚ resulting in a combined total of more than 75 million minutes of idling a day. This day alone uses over 2.2 million litres of fuel and produces over five million kilograms of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and is equal to the amount of fuel required to drive over 1100 vehicles for a year or to idle one vehicle for 144 years!

What is the “profile” of the typical idler?

It's safe to say that most Canadian motorists do some idling. However‚ research shows some interesting trends. For example‚ the amount of idling a driver does tends to increase with the number of people in the household. A driver living with children is more likely to idle than one without children. As well‚ the frequency of idling appears to decrease as a person ages – a retiree is the least likely to idle. A person living in a rural area is more likely to idle than a driver living in an urban centre. Regionally‚ a person in British Columbia is the least likely to idle a vehicle.

The good news!

One easy way to cut fuel consumption, save money and reduce GHGs is to avoid unnecessary idling. If all drivers avoided unnecessary idling for three minutes a day, we would save over $630 million per year (assuming a fuel cost of $1/litre). What's more‚ collectively‚ we would prevent 1.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) from entering the atmosphere daily and contributing to climate change. This would be equal to saving over 630 million litres of fuel and equivalent to taking 320,000 cars off of the road for the entire year. Clearly‚ individual actions‚ when taken by millions of Canadians‚ can make a difference.

You can achieve savings and reduce your vehicle's impact on the environment by following these tips.

  • Consult your owner's manual. It contains important information about how to drive and maintain your vehicle for optimum performance and efficiency.
  • Follow the manufacturer's recommended maintenance schedule. A poorly maintained vehicle can cost the equivalent of up to 15¢ more per litre on fuel.
  • Check fluid levels at least once a month. Check and change the engine oil, engine coolant, transmission fluid and power steering fluid according to the manufacturer's recommendations in your owner's manual. Also check around and under the vehicle for fluid leaks; and if there are leaks, have them repaired.
  • Measure your tire pressure at least once a month. Inflate cold tires to the recommended pressure. The correct tire inflation information for your vehicle is usually indicated near the driver's door, in the glove compartment or in the owner's manual. For every 28 kilopascals (4 pounds per square inch) of under-inflation, fuel use increases by about 2 percent. Properly inflated tires will last longer, make your vehicle safer to drive and save fuel.
  • Reduce idling. If you are stopped for more than 60 seconds, except while in traffic, turn off your engine. It has minimal impact on the starter system, and idling for more than 10 seconds uses more fuel than it takes to restart your vehicle.
  • Warm up your vehicle by driving it at a moderate speed. In most cases, you need no more than 2-3 minutes of idling from a cold start on winter days. Of course, ensure your windows are free of ice and snow before driving. Vehicle components, such as wheel bearings, steering, suspension, transmission and tires, are best warmed up by driving the vehicle.
  • Use a block heater in the winter to warm your engine before starting. A cold engine is at its worst for fuel consumption, engine wear and exhaust emissions. Block heaters can improve overall winter fuel economy by pre-warming the engine, coolant and oil. Use an automatic timer to turn on the block heater no more than two hours before you plan to drive.
  • Do not overuse your remote starter. People with remote starters sometimes start their vehicles long before they are ready to drive. Remote starts can result in needless idling and wasted fuel. If you use a remote starter, start your vehicle shortly before you are ready to drive away.
  • Avoid speeding. Increasing your highway speed from 100 km/h to 120 km/h can increase your fuel consumption by up to 20 percent.
  • Use cruise control. Under normal driving conditions, cruise control saves fuel on the highway by keeping your speed constant and avoiding inadvertent speeding. Check your owner's manual regarding the safe operation of your vehicle's cruise control system.
  • Use your air conditioning sparingly. Air conditioning can increase fuel consumption by up to 20 percent due to the extra load on the engine. Use your vehicle's flow-through ventilation on the highway, or open a window during city driving. If you use your vehicle's air conditioning, set the controls to a comfort level that allows the system to shut off once the vehicle's interior is cool. Refer to the owner's manual for information on your vehicle's air-conditioning system.
  • Remove unnecessary weight. If you add weight to your vehicle for extra traction in the winter months, remember to remove it when the snow melts. Unnecessary weight can result in wasted fuel and needless CO2 emissions.
  • Take off the roof rack. A loaded or empty roof rack increases fuel consumption through aerodynamic drag. A removable roof rack, installed only when needed, is your best option.
  • Adopt fuel-efficient driving habits. Accelerate smoothly, as abrupt starts and stops waste fuel. Plan your driving and look ahead of traffic. Anticipate problems and keep a safe distance between your vehicle and the one ahead to avoid sudden braking.
  • Make one long trip instead of several short trips. Plan to combine your trips as taking short trips burns more fuel, regardless of the season, because the engine and drivetrain do not reach their most efficient operating temperatures.
  • Leave the vehicle at home, or park partway to your destination. Walk, cycle, car pool or take public transit whenever you can.

More information on buying‚ driving and maintaining personal vehicles to reduce fuel consumption is available on the personal vehicles Web site.

1 Survey of Drivers Attitudes Awareness and Behaviour, Natural Resources Canada, December 1998