Friday, March 30, 2007
By the time that Will Rogers joked in the 1930s that America was the first nation ever to go to the poorhouse in an automobile (imagine!), it was clear that Americans had special relationships with their vehicles. Americans eat, sleep and beget children in their cars, and no amount of environmental shame or new urbanist design is going to change the habits of millions of Americans who seem to love their cars and trucks.
One sour manifestation of this love is the practice of idling –- trucks and buses that run their engines while the driver is waiting, dozing, or doing who-knows-what. Idling trucks and buses are not only an aural nuisance; constant and concentrated exhaust can cause health hazards. This is especially of concern for people who live near places where trucks and buses often idle.
Responding to complaints from a residential neighborhood near a truck business in Allentown, Pa., a Pennsylvania legislator has introduced a bill to limit trucks to idling for a maximum of five minutes in most instances. We can cheer this legislation as a blow for the rights of citizens against those who abuse their privilege to drive and impose burdens on others’ enjoyment of their property.
But we should also be aware of the limits of land use laws such as these. What are the chances that such a law would be enforced in any effective way? It might be effective in stopping unlawful idling at the notorious spot in Allentown, but it would be unlikely to be at the top of police priorities in most places. Just as laws against littering do little to protect our sidewalks and streets from garbage, we probably shouldn’t expect too much from laws against idling. In some countries of the world, it is impossible to get effective enforcement of most land use laws. Even in the United States, law has its limits.