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Idle Threat: Man on Emission cover image

Idle Threat: Man on Emission 2012

Highly Recommended

Distributed by The Video Project, PO Box 411376, San Francisco, CA 94141-1376; 800-475-2638
Produced by George Pakenham
Directed by George Pakenham
DVD, color, 30 and 63 min.

General Adult
Environment, Energy Conservation, Automobile Industry, Sustainable Development, Air Pollution

Date Entered: 01/10/2014

Reviewed by Andrew Jenks, California State University, Long Beach

Environmental degradation often seems like an impossible problem to solve, given the seeming disconnect between increasing rates of consumption around the globe and scarce resources. But sometimes simple changes can generate impressive returns. This film examines the simple proposition that a good portion of air pollution in the world’s cities could be eliminated by stopping the unnecessary idling of cars and trucks. That simple action would save billions of barrels of oil and solve multiple health and environmental problems. New York City, for example, has one million asthmatics whose condition is greatly exacerbated by air pollution – not to mention the fact that car exhaust is a known carcinogen, as harmful as second-hand smoke. Across the United States idling is responsible for approximately 1.6 percent of US greenhouse gases and 6 billion gallons of fuel at a cost of $20 billion.

The film follows the attempt of a Wall Street banker to highlight idling’s destructive impact. He had been motivated, in part, by a brother who had died from lung cancer at the age of 57 – perhaps, he thought, from exposure to exhaust from idling cars. What started as one man’s seemingly quixotic quest had a happy ending, focusing public attention on the problem of idling and introducing legislation to combat the wasteful practice. Indeed, the banker-turned-activist discovered that there had been laws on the books against idling since 1971. Those laws, however, were almost universally ignored by both citizens and law enforcement officials. His mission was to draw attention to these laws—including a law that it is illegal in New York City to idle a car or truck engine for more than three minutes—and to put some teeth behind their enforcement.

The film comes in two versions – a longer one of about an hour and a shorter one of 30 minutes more suited for the classroom. The film provides surprising information about the impact of idling as well as commentary from numerous experts, including NPR’s “Click and Clack” car experts, Ray and Tom Magliozzi, who explain why frequently turning off a car engine and not idling is sound advice. Contrary to popular belief, idling is not good for a car engine; and frequently turning off a car engine does not degrade any part of the car’s ignition or other systems.

The documentary is well done – and entertaining. George Pakenham, the Wall Street banker on a mission, is an engaging individual. The camera follows him as he alerts drivers in violation of the three-minute law about the law, handing them a card containing information about the little-known and never-enforced statute. Some drivers thanked him; many cursed him and told him to get lost. Some of the worst offenders were utility, ambulance and fire-truck drivers who regularly idled their vehicles even when not responding to an emergency. It was only when Pakenham teamed up with a like-minded lawyer from the Environmental Defense Fund that he was able to convince city officials to take their own idling law seriously. Pakenham’s success was not only a success for environmental protection; it also was a victory, albeit a small but important one, for grass-roots activism. This is an eye-opening documentary that draws attention to a common problem, and a solution, that few people even recognize. It also shows the link between individual actions and solving broader environmental and political problems such as energy dependence, environmental pollution, and public health challenges.