When it comes to curbing vehicle idling in Salt Lake City, education trumps enforcement.
Mayor Ralph Becker and the City Council agreed on that premise Tuesday, passing a new law that outlaws idling beyond two minutes but exempts drive-through business windows — considered the biggest air-polluting culprits — provided the merchants post anti-idling signs.
The compromise was reached — in the face of banker and restaurateur criticism — as council members conceded placing "exhaust police" at drive-throughs citywide is unrealistic.
"This is a good way to be friendly and encourage others to look at this," said Councilman Carlton Christensen, who was outnumbered in his bid to stretch the idling limit to four minutes. "At the end of the day, considering our limited enforcement capabilities, it may be more effective."
Becker’s ordinance, passed unanimously by the council, still puts Salt Lake City on a par with Philadelphia as the U.S. city with the strictest anti-idling standard. The new law forbids motorists from idling beyond two minutes — including in their driveways and in front of schools.
But it comes with a six-month grace period and first-time violators will receive a warning. A second offense costs $160 and a third, $210. Exceptions are outlined for temperatures below 32 degrees and above 90, defrosting windows and waiting at stoplights. Bus drivers still can idle up to 10 minutes. And police, airport-support vehicles and utility and emergency crews are exempt.
Councilman Stan Penfold maintained anything government can do to cleanse the air is a valley-wide benefit. "Taking that moment and using those little muscles in your hand to turn off that engine," he said, "is a really good message."
As part of the measure, the council pledged to study other air-polluting symptoms — namely synchronizing city stoplights — and to review the idling law a year from now.
The council toyed with a universal three-minute limit, with no exemptions, but backed away.
Becker said he ultimately endorsed the sign idea at drive-throughs since violations would be enforced "very sporadically" anyway.
"The purpose of this is to reduce air pollution," the mayor emphasized. "That education component may serve just as well."
Under the plan, businesses with drive-throughs will be required to purchase anti-idling signs that highlight the law from the city at roughly $20 a pop. The city debated mandating the slogan "It’s our health and the law," but opted to let business owners choose the language. But if merchants fail to erect a sign, the idling exemption would not be granted.
Councilman Van Turner, who owns a burger joint and floral shop in Glendale, argued the signs should reinforce good behavior. "Most people are creatures of habit," he said, pointing to the hordes who return to the same lunch lanes and bank deposit boxes. "I’m in favor of the signs because it’s going to remind you every single day."
"It’s going to be the next generation of kids," added Councilman J.T. Martin, "that understand the importance of this."
Councilman Luke Garrott expressed some reservation, arguing two or three minutes ought to be plenty of time for drive-through business. If it’s slower, he said, "they’re not providing a good service." He also took issue with exempting some private properties but not others.
The city’s parking enforcement crews will enforce the idling law, though officials say it will primarily be complaint based.
Citations aside, Councilman Soren Simonsen worries the law simply addresses a symptom but not the actual problem: drive-through windows.
"That may need to be something," he suggested, "we need to take another look at."