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Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion is under fire for suggesting drivers should be ticketed for idling while waiting for coffee in drive-throughs.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Will the legacy of Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion be ticketing drivers for letting their car engines idle while they pick up their morning double-doubles?

She certainly hopes not.

On Thursday, Ms. McCallion backed away from comments she made in council the previous day in which she called for greater enforcement of the 2009 bylaw that tickets drivers for idling more than three minutes, singling out those using drive-throughs.

Her position sparked controversy, a flurry of media reports, and even prompted reactions from members of Toronto council.

"I was only joking," Ms. McCallion said on Thursday afternoon in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

Ms. McCallion said other news outlets misinterpreted her comments.

"I never said we were out to enforce," she said. "When we passed the idling bylaw, we knew we couldn't hire enough staff to go around. We hoped it was a message to the citizens that they shouldn't allow their cars to idle."

Ms. McCallion, who famously drives a Chevrolet Volt electric car, had previously championed an outright ban on drive-throughs, but never secured the support of council to pass it.

Ms. McCallion's comments on Wednesday even caused a splash in Toronto council. Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, chair of the public works committee, called cracking down on commuters in drive-throughs "political suicide."

He said that Mississauga's long-serving mayor might lose support over her stand if she were not retiring. "No city council or politician should come between a driver and their Tim's," he said.

Mayoral hopeful Steve Mahoney said the solution to idling in drive-throughs is to encourage businesses to streamline their service, rather than to focus on penalizing drivers or introducing a full-out ban.

"If the companies that operate these drive-throughs are unable to get people through in a time frame that would allow them to not break the law, the companies have to look at how quickly they're moving people through. That should be the emphasis," he said. "The Tim Hortons and McDonald's and whatever should live up to their commitment."

Mr. Mahoney's chief rival in the race to be mayor, Ward 5 councillor Bonnie Crombie, also distanced herself from the idea of ticketing residents for idling their cars when picking up a meal after a long day.

"I do not believe our approach should be focused on the driver – it's not their fault if the restaurant isn't providing optimal service and getting their customers through the drive thru within 3 minutes," she said in an e-mailed response to The Globe and Mail.

"As we intensify, the reality will be that drive thrus just won't work in all locations because there will not be space for them to operate efficiently." To address climate change, she said the city had to look at the bigger picture: replacing cars with rapid transit.

In 2008, the Mississauga introduced new design guidelines for drive-throughs, including a requirement for anti-littering signs and restrictions on where the drive-through could be situated to prevent cars from spilling over on to main roadways.

"I think we've done a good job of strengthening [the rules]," Ms. McCallion said. "We took all kinds of measures to improve the impact it was having on both the pollution and on the traffic."

Unlike the two front-runners vying for her job, Ms. McCallion doesn't think the problem is inefficiency in assembling Big Macs or making lattes – it is the sheer volume of cars on the road.

"The businesses have done their part to see how long it will take to service a customer and they do it in very short periods of time," she said. "But how about the 30 cars behind that one they're serving just waiting to get in line?"

With a report from Elizabeth Church