Suburban Bureau

The Anti-Idling By-Law is an Embarrassment

City Council and staff lost sight of why it was they were making a new law.

By Trey Shaughnessy
Published May 18, 2007

Hamilton was dragged into the future on May 10, when city councillors decided to pass an anti-idling bylaw after struggling for years over the issue of enforcement.

Council stands to vote on the anti-idling by-law
Council stands to vote on the anti-idling by-law

Playing catch-up, Hamilton copied most other municipalities in Ontario that have banned idling. At the meeting, Councillor Dave Mitchell rhetorically asked, "Why do we have to look to other cities to see how they do things?"

That's a good question, Mr. Mitchell: why do you? Did he forget he's part of city's leadership? This kind of leadership and stewardship is what keeps Hamilton stuck in the past.

The meeting began with council hearing the public's input. We heard from a class of students from Strathcona School who performed a skit that was cute and at the same time disturbing.

The children were asking our 'leaders' to do the right thing and make a by-law that would change our lifestyle and would result in a world that would be livable for their future and children's future. In fact, they were begging council to start taking some baby-steps toward sustainability.

A public speaker named Vegan put it bluntly: "it's disgraceful that we even have to ponder an anti-idling by-law."

Another speaker named Ally said, "It's time to move from talk to action."

By-Law Overview

Before you get too excited about breathing a deep breathe of fresh air you may first want to take a big exhale. I would like to congratulate Councillor McHattie for his efforts and success in seeing a by-law finally passed, but I do question the success it will have.

A car driver is in violation if he/she idles their car for three or more consecutive minutes inside 60 minutes. If a car rolls forward an inch, the the minutes start over.

There are some 15 exemptions. The most absurd to me was the exemption for drive-thrus and lineups at a car wash. By classifying the constant exhaust-spewing lineup of cars in a drive-thru as "traffic congestion," it exempts the drivers because it is "beyond their control," as if they were stuck behind a traffic accident on the 403.

Ask the one in five children in the city who suffers from asthma if they are exempt from the exhaust that comes from drive-thrus.

Another exemption is for "mechanical difficulties." I assume this is for people who can start their car but can't seem to get it to move. [It may be so that mechanics can run engines for troubleshooting reasons or to activate a fuel system cleaner. -Ed.]

If the temperature lower than minus five degrees Celsius or higher than 27 degrees Celsius, you are also exempt and can idle away, waiting for your child to exit the rec centre while you sit in air conditioned comfort.

I think that eliminates about four or five months of the year in one exemption. I'm starting to wonder why we'll even need enforcement.


Speaking of which, the city will hire one full-time by-law officer for enforcement. The officer will not actively look for idlers but will act on a complaint basis. It also wasn't clear whether the by-law officer could enforce idling on private property.

Here's a case study: You walk to pick up your child from kindergarten and notice a car idling at the school. You note the license plate, make and model of the violating vehicle, then walk home or use a cell phone if you have one and call the city at 905-546-CITY.

After going through the automated voice message you are directed to the by-law office. You may get a live person or you may get a prompt to leave a message. Either way, you then lodge your complaint.

The by-law officer swings into action - be patient, he or she may be coming from Waterdown from a previous complaint to answer your complaint in Stoney Creek - and arrives at the school.

If the car is still there, the officer will measure the outside temperature to make sure it's not too hot or too cold and establish whether idling is necessary to operation of the vehicle. Then the countdown will start.

After three minutes, the officer can issue a $150 fine - unless the car rolls forward an inch, at which point the three minutes starts over.

The exemptions already eliminate about four months of the year and idling at drive-thrus. Having only one by-law officer also effectively exempts 16 hours in a given 24 hour day, plus weekends, sick days and holidays.

Given this and the vastness of the entire city, it will be a miracle if the officer ever issues a fine.

Enforcement (Not)

This is the issue that council has struggled with for the last two years. The City can be found liable if it passes a by-law but does not enforce it.

To complicate matters, an officer cannot be hired until the next budget in June 2008. The by-law again looked to be doomed, until Councillor Brad Clark suggested that they pass the by-law that night and only issue 'fake tickets' until June 2008.

His suggestion changed the minds of Councillors Pearson, Mitchell and Ferguson and made a unanimous vote in favour.

I'm upset because this does nothing. I'll take it, but it will do nothing to alter lifestyles or improve air quality. It is a mere token by-law.

It showed a lack of vision and leadership. We don't even close drive-thrus on smog days. The city struggled with this for so long and arrived at a 'solution' for the school children not worth the piece of paper it's written on.

Filling in the Enforcement Gap

It appears everyday citizens will have to act where our leaders have failed. Grant Ranalli, who teaches at a local school, became so concerned for his pupils' health that he created his own awareness tickets and handed them out to idling cars.

I suggest we take his brilliant approach and do the same. A copy of the ticket [PDF] is attached, courtesy of Mr. Ranalli (see also a version for schools). Please print and photocopy to give to a person you see idling.

I'm left wondering why we passed this by-law. I think council and staff lost sight of why it was they were making a new law. Was it not to help save our air and environment?

The only way to do this is to change our lifestyles. If we don't change, our climate will force us.

If everyone in the world lived the way Canadians do, it would require five and a half planet earths to sustain our way of living. That is the size of Canada's environmental footprint, and it's an embarrassment.

Trey lives in Williamsville NY via Hamilton. He is a Marketing Manager for Tourism and Destination Marketing in the Buffalo-Niagara Metro.

His essays have appeared in The Energy Bulletin, Post Carbon Institute, Peak Oil Survival, and Tree Hugger.

And can't wait for the day he stops hearing "on facebook".


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By N. George (anonymous) | Posted May 20, 2007 at 18:51:24

The whole thing is an embarrassment. One officer to patrol the entire a City of 1 million cars? I can bet that the officer will spend 90% of his time filling out paper work & attending court sessions for those who contest the ticket. What a waste of money!! Pass the by-law but use officers who can currently issue POA fine offenses. Also, I would like to see that money go into developing our urban forest, trees remove CO2, why not add more?

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By choking (anonymous) | Posted May 22, 2007 at 16:27:05

The one thing worse than the fact that it is enforced by only one officer is that no other bylaw officer is allowed to ticket?

How complicated is idling that it costs thousands of dollars to get them up to speed?

The truth is council does not want a functional plan because they don't want the hassle of all the beligerent whiners who will cry when they are cought for the upteenth time and finally fined.

This would no be such an issue if we did not pave everywhere and build housing further and further away from everything they need making the car a "vital" and much overused tool for "living".

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