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What can we do about cars idling at drive-throughs?

Cars lined up at a Tim Hortons drive through on Mavis Road in Mississauga.

Louie Palu/Louie Palu/The Globe and Mail

The question: I get annoyed by how many cars sit in line idling at drive-throughs. Is there something we can do about it?

The answer: At Briar Hill Elementary School in Calgary, when parents sit idling waiting to pick up their kids, the students knock on their windows and ask them to turn off the engine.

That's action. But it's just a start.

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Frustrated at seeing customers at drive-through windows getting more attention than those who walked into the store, Markham real estate developer Dave de Sylva started counting cars at the 29 drive-throughs in his city, using a stopwatch to time how long they sat idling. Using a formula from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he calculated that in one year the residents of Markham were wasting enough gas idling in line-ups to drive a car around the world 85 times.

Imagine you pull into the drive-through for your daily dose of Tim Hortons during the morning rush. The line takes about 10 minutes. With a three-litre engine, your idling car has just burned a quarter litre of gas, according to Natural Resources Canada.

Gas prices across Canada (at time of writing) are anywhere from $1.10 to $1.44 a litre. Using a midway price of $1.26, that quarter litre you wasted in the Tim's lineup means your coffee cost an additional 31 cents – $1.55 a week if you idle every morning. So the young woman who parks her car and walks into the store saves enough money on gas every week to buy a bonus large coffee, with a few cents left over for a Timbits treat.

That idling is also costing you on car maintenance. Your engine isn't running at peak temperature, so fuel isn't fully combusted. This causes residue buildup in your cylinders, reducing fuel efficiency and even damaging engine parts.

In Perth, Ont., Peggy Land and her local chapter of the Canadian Federation of University Women convinced their town council to enact a by-law prohibiting idling. While researching the issue, they consulted an experienced mechanic and learned that emissions-control systems – the devices that make your car pollute less – only work at full efficiency when driving.

If every Canadian driver reduced idling time by just three minutes a day, it would reduce carbon emissions by 1.4 tonnes a year. That's like taking more than 196,000 cars off the road for a year.

Admittedly, on a Canadian January day when it's 20 below, you don't want to sit long in an unheated car. But some people have the misplaced it takes a long time idling to warm up your engine. "It doesn't. Thirty seconds, you touch it and whoa! It's hot," says Honda dealership mechanic Ricky Forgeron of Halifax, who supports the Dads Against Dirty Air, or DADA, campaign.

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So how can we put the brakes to idling?

Skip the drive-through and meet the nice people pouring you your coffee. If you absolutely must use a drive-through, switch off your engine when you're sitting for more than 10 seconds.

If your city doesn't already have an idling by-law, start a campaign to enact one. has sample by-laws and other educational resources.

Get your kids involved. Ms. Land and her colleagues performed a skit for local Grade 4 classes, pretending to take the class on a road trip to Ottawa. They acted out picking up each student and stopping for snacks, while one student watched the clock to count how much time was spent idling.

So tomorrow morning at Tim's, get out of the car and buy your java from the friendly folks behind the counter. On Friday you can savour that bonus cup you've earned.

Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free the Children. Follow Craig at and @craigkielburger on Twitter. Send questions to

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