George Pakenham: Man on emissions

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

A A A

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 engine-idling 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 Pakenham heard 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 from 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.



www.verdantvigilante.com

Property
pets
Arts and Entertainment
tvGame of Thrones season 5 ep 4, review - WARNING: contains major spoiliers!
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
News
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
Sport
football
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’
tvThe Enfield Haunting, TV review
News
news
News
The Mattehorn stands reflected in Leisee lake near Sunnegga station on June 30, 2013 near Zermatt, Switzerland
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living