Back in 2009, an unoccupied delivery van left idling on East Broadway in Chinatown jumped a curb and killed two preschoolers as their class was coming back from a field trip. 17 people were injured in the incident, which was deemed an accident. The driver was not charged or even issued a ticket, sparking enormous outrage and rallies demanding a new law that would criminalize such carelessness. On Thursday, that law goes into effect.
Called Hayley and Diego's Law, it's named after 4-year-old Hayley Ng and her 3-year-old classmate Diego Martinez. Sponsored by Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh and Senator Daniel Squadron, the law closes a loophole in that allows a driver who has caused injury or death to avoid punishment. Under the amendment, "drivers who act in a manner that endangers or would be likely to endanger a pedestrian or cyclist thereby causing physical injury or death shall be guilty of a traffic infraction. Punishment could include a fine, a term of imprisonment of up to 15 days and/or the participation in a motor vehicle accident prevention course."
It won't bring the victims back, and 15 days in jail still seems too light, but perhaps it's better than nothing. "Wake up, New York, it's time to be careful about how you drive," Hayley's aunt Wendy Cheung tells the Daily News. "My sister is heartbroken. It's as painful as the day it happened. Hayley was her only child."
The Independent | September 14, 2010
Vehicular vigilante: George Packenham checks the traffic on Wall Street
Leaving your car’s engine running might not seem like a crime. But it is – and an unlikely crusader is taking drivers to task. Sophie Morris hears his story
New Yorker George Pakenham leaves his home on the Upper West Side each morning in his suit and takes the subway to Wall Street, where he works on the mortgage desk of an international investment bank. Unlike the other commuters, he doesn’t walk with his head down, lost in the crush of worker bees scurrying to their jobs. Instead he has his eyes and ears tuned in to the traffic, looking out for stationary vehicles.
If he spots a car or van which isn’t moving but has the engine running, he’ll wait a few minutes to see whether it moves off before stopping to speak to the driver. With the aid of a printed card, Pakenham then explains that “engine idling” – keeping your engine running while stationary for more than three minutes – is actually an offence in the City of New York, and has been since 1971. It is a waste of expensive gas and pollutes the air and, as a consequence, contributes to global climate change. What’s more, it is punishable with a fine of $115.
Pakenham’s crusade to convert engineidling offenders is not as peculiar as it sounds. He has conscientiously identified one of the many silent environmental threats that bubble under city life, and decided to make fighting it his mission.
“It first came to my attention about five years ago,” he says. “It was connected to my outrage over the war in Iraq and disdain for anyone who would just burn gas mindlessly. It struck me that our motive for war was a result of our greed for oil, and that irked me.
“The first car I approached was a limo. It took a lot of courage, but I convinced him he was wasting fuel. From that point, I became ardent about talking to drivers. The cards help, as they make it more official.”
To date, Pakenham has approached more than 2,500 engine idlers and reports a 78 to 80 per cent success rate. He keeps a record of every interaction, recording on a spreadsheet the date, location, type of vehicle and its plate, the gender and estimated age and race of the driver, whether they were aware of the law or not and a few comments on the incident.
He highlights noteworthy encounters in red. These include: “Tossed card out of the window. Called me a bastard,” “Had a gun on a holster at his hip,” and “Four cops eating Chinese food in Central Park.” These police officers informed Pakenham that the law doesn’t apply when they’re in emergency mode.
Engine idlers are breaking the law and could be fined for their actions, but while, as Pakenham puts it, “there are 2,300 traffic cops in the City of New York who will write you a ticket for parking by a fire hydrant”, getting them to write one for idling used to be a struggle.
“The NYPD laughed it off and the Mayor’s office gave me the cold shoulder,” he remembers. Bizarrely, under the 1971 law, traffic agents did not have the power to write tickets for idling. Police officers did but were not interested in the issue.
Eventually, he got some support from the Environmental Defense Fund, a non-governmental organisation, in the summer of 2007. In February 2009 Mayor Bloomberg signed a bill clamping down on idling and giving traffic agents the right to issue and enforce tickets. Eleven months passed before Pakenhamheard that a ticket had been written for an idling offence, but research suggests the value of the tickets issued in 2009 could be in excess of $100,000.
Pakenham’s friends now call him the Verdant Vigilante and he’s made a film about his campaign called Idle Threat, inspired by political film-makers such as Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) and Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11).
He points out there is no downside to switching off your engine when stationary. You save petrol and cut pollution just by turning the key. Bus, taxi and private car drivers – the worst offenders – complain that in winter keeping the engine on is the only way to keep warm.
If you’ve never given engine idling a second thought, you might be surprised to learn it is an offence in the UK, too. The Road Traffic Regulations 2002 give local authorities the right to fine drivers 20 for idling, but few act on it. Critics call it an excuse to squeeze more money out of innocent drivers, but councils usually choose to educate drivers rather than fining them.
Glasgow City Council is taking the lead and began a campaign against idling in 2007. That year, 130 fines were issued and enforcement levels have remained consistent. Elsewhere a commitment to reducing idling appears in the plans of various councils for improving air quality, but little is being done.
In London, the Mayor’s Draft Air Quality Strategy includes making the city a no-idling zone and councils are planning their own tactics – Camden will crack down on schools and the taxi ranks at Euston and King’s Cross stations soon.
Back in New York, Pakenham says his goal is to “eradicate engine idling”. He wants to make it as socially unacceptable as passive smoking. In his eyes, it’s as lethal.
My November 25th, 2008 testimony on the engine idling issue before the NYC City Council
Thank you very much for the opportunity to testify before your committee. My involvement in the anti idling movement is, I believe, unique and I trust it will give you some insight into the problem and will come to reinforce your decisions to modify and strengthen the current laws.
I’m a graduate of the University of Arizona and did graduate work at NYU. I’m a 28 year resident of Manhattan and currently work for a major European bank, in their Latin American lending division. I have been with this bank for 7 years.
My role as an activist in the environmental movement is quite focused on idling. Focused and personal. It began more than 4 years ago when we went to war for a second time in the Middle East over oil. And it became ever more aggravating for me to watch fellow NYers, mindless at the wheel, idling their engines and wasting gas... or oil as I saw it. Besides, I felt it was disgraceful on many fronts. Bad Air, health issues, wasted money.
One evening, I became particularly fed up with a stretch limo parked in front of my apartment house, idling, as his customers were inside a nearby restaurant. It was spring, at night and around 50 degrees outside. I knocked on the window. The limo driver and I had a 10 minute discussion. Ultimately, I convinced him to shut off his engine.
This first success gave me courage. For the next six months I would follow the same procedure on my way to and from work and on the weekends. I found myself becoming more and more successful.
One evening, I asked someone who appeared to be a limo driver to shut off his engine. It was an undercover policeman. I backed off but the officer said…
“Did you know there is a law against it…? Fines too? But I’m not sure how much the fines are??”
That was a true catalyst for me. I had actually been enforcing a law, as a vigilante, so to speak, not even knowing it. I did extensive research and worked with the State EPA to learn more about the law and fines.
Once I had a clear handle on the law and fines, I had cards printed up, as you see here.
This describes the law on one side and penalties on the other.
This gave me more confidence… but with this tool in hand, I wanted to keep tabs on how successful, statistically, I would become. So I created an excel spread sheet as seen here.
In my first year of keeping records, I had:
The statistics were basically the same in year two but I had only 615 encounters. Less production, but I was more successful, at least with limos… because I was only successful 70% of the time in year one and I was 90% successful in year two.
I have written a letter to Mr. Daus, Commissioner of the Taxi and Limousine Commission, explaining the seriousness of the problem. I hope to meet with him soon.
I will add that in the corporate world, Con Ed is by far the biggest offender. I am in touch with the Director of Environment, Health and Safety at Con Ed and have discussed this issue with him.
In my encounters, I always start of my conversation by saying,
“Excuse me for bothering you… but are you aware that it’s against the law to idle your car engine in NYC for more then 3 minutes?”
No matter what happens in-between, in the end I always give them a mild command.
“Then it would be great if you could shut off your engine. Better environment, you save money and you’re a good citizen obeying the law.”
So, in two years I have had 1438 total encounters, or roughly 59 a month. I’m on track in year three for the same. But key here is that 77 % will shut off their engines… with only ME asking them to do so.
Imagine how agreeable NYC citizens would be if more knew about the law (when only roughly 25% know of it) and how much quicker they would know about it… if police enforced it and fines were issued. The word would spread very quickly.
And a huge sum of money would have been raised. If I had been a police officer issuing idling tickets during this time, I could have raised $316,360 for the city, and this just while walking to and from work and weekend strolls. This calculation is based on the lowest ticket amount which is $220 but tickets for third time offenders can reach $2,000.
You should know that I’m making a documentary film on the topic and have interviewed many key people in the field on it. It’s in an 11 minute demo version now. Two key officers within Chief Scagnelli’s Police Traffic Division saw this video in the spring of 2007 and were impressed. It was presented to the PR division in City Hall in the summer of 2007, but it got me nowhere. I’m hoping to have the EDF approve a 3 minute version of it suitable for Utube as part of an attention and awareness campaign.
I was fortunate indeed to have gotten into the offices of EDF in the summer of 2007 to discuss my ideas and research and statistics… all to encourage them to support this effort to, on a very micro level, help enforce existing laws on the books for years in NYC. Now look where we are. We are almost home.
I’m sure you have read the EDF white paper on the idling topic which points out all the health issues and revenue earning possibilities for the City of NY in this time of economic crisis.
I see the enforcement of the 3 minute or perhaps 1 minute no idling law as a complete win win win situation: A win for the environment, a win for the citizens of NYC to live in a cleaner and healthier city and a win for the city coffers.
And to the point, a key way to ensure its enforcement of the law is to demand that Chief Scagnelli’s traffic police force enforce it… because right now traffic agents don’t have the idling codes in either their hand held computer system nor is it listed on their printed ‘ticket’ sheets as an enforceable violation. I find this appalling and incomprehensible.
In closing, I hope NYC can become, once again, the model for the rest of the country. If the City Council votes to enforce these laws, this goal can be realized. I thank you for your time and consideration.