Exhaust

A new law restricts residents and visitors to Madison from idling motor vehicles on private or public property for more than five consecutive minutes. Drivers get a pass, however, if the outside temperature is below 20 degrees or above 90 degrees.

Scott Anderson, Journal Times

Whether picking up a child from school or waiting for a song to end before leaving the car, Madison motorists will now have to watch how long their vehicles idle.

A new city ordinance limits the length of time drivers can run a vehicle’s engine while it’s parked to five consecutive minutes. Previously, the city applied a 15-minute idling limit to large trucks and buses in certain areas. The new law holds all motor vehicles to the 5-minute standard, and it applies to vehicles sitting on both public and private property.

Ald. Ledell Zellers, 2nd District, said environmental and health impacts from car exhaust were the driving factors behind the law.

“We need to be better in terms of our carbon emissions,” Zellers said. “In general, we need to be better environmental stewards.”

Madison police Capt. Richard Bach, who heads the department’s traffic and parking enforcement division, said no tickets have been issued for excessive idling in the past year under the old standard.

But both Zellers and Bach said education needs to be a key component of the law.

“Hopefully, it will just raise the consciousness and awareness of people,” Zellers said.

A first offense can cost you $100. A second offense within seven years is a $400 ticket. Third and subsequent offenses within seven years are $600 tickets.

Since the change is new — it was approved by the Madison City Council on Tuesday — Bach said an enforcement protocol is still being developed and said tickets will largely be complaint driven.

“I think we have to exercise some kind of common sense and reasonableness here on how we go about enforcing this,” Bach said.

Several exceptions to the time limit are built into the law.

People may idle vehicles to use their defrosters, air conditioners, heaters and other equipment to “prevent a health or safety emergency, including for the purpose of providing shelter.”

Drivers are also exempt if the outside temperature is below 20 degrees or above 90 degrees. Actively loading and unloading passengers or property on private property while idling is another exception.

Idling in congested traffic, for repair or service work, and for using equipment attached to a vehicle, such as a crane or concrete mixer, is also excluded from enforcement.

“We’re not going to go out and start laying tickets on these vehicles without looking at the bigger picture here of how long they’ve been idling, why they’re idling, whether the person maybe wasn’t aware of the ordinance,” Bach said.

Zellers said the ordinance helps address a number of health problems that can be exacerbated by car exhaust, which includes pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. Asthma, particularly for children, can be triggered by the fumes.

Laws limiting idling are not new. Several states, counties and municipalities have had them for years.

New Hampshire has a statewide restriction of 5 minutes if the temperature is above 32 degrees. Washington, D.C., set a 3-minute idling limit for commercial vehicles when the temperature is above freezing, and a first-time offense costs $1,000.

“We still aren’t as progressive as some cities,” Zellers said. “We’re making progress, and hopefully we’ll move to something even better in the future.”

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Logan Wroge has been a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal since 2015.