July 20, 2006

The Full Curmungeon

Vancouver Sun columnist Pete McMartin is in full curmungeon today: Little Mother just wants you to know who’s the boss.” (Registration required.)

Little Mother is nice. She has the best of intentions. Of this, she is absolutely convinced. She believes she knows what is good for you, because, after all, she is a mother, and mothers know best…

McMartin’s latest scourge:

The City of Vancouver passed an anti-idling bylaw Tuesday that calls for drivers who leave a car running for more than three minutes to be levied a $50 fine…

You see how benign that is? How good for you that is? Little Mother has your best interests at heart. An idling car wastes gasoline. Gasoline, when combusted, causes greenhouses gases. Greenhouse gases cause global warming. Global warming is bad. Therefore, idling is bad. Therefore, we need a bylaw against it.

The usual formula: treat the issue with contempt while acknowledging its logic. And then, the coup-de-grace:

… every study of the Greater Vancouver region has shown that the air quality here has grown better every year since the late 1980s. Not worse, better….

The question could be asked then:

Why is there a need for this bylaw when the effect of its enforcement would have, at best, minimal impact on air quality?

But why, Pete, has air quality improved?

Could it be that all those Little-Mother laws, those interventions in our lives by government since the 1970s, have made the difference, have actually achieved the improvements which you can now use as justification to oppose anything similar?

In Jack Doyle’s Taken For A Ride: Detroit’s Big Three and the Politics of Air Pollution, you can find a detailed account of the automotive industry’s fight against environmental regulation and health legislation – every step of the way. From seat belts to catalytic converters, there wasn’t an improvement they didn’t oppose. And the techniques are all familiar: pretty much the same tools being used today to oppose action to deal with climate change.

Including ridicule and contempt.

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  1. I lived in Switzerland when they introduced an anti-idling law (1987!!). As a Canadian, I wondered how such a law would be enforced. Well, I guess the Swiss must be what Pete McMartin referes to as “Little Mothers”…. When a driver neglected to shut off their engine while parked, or stopped at a light, within 15 seconds people would be banging on their windows reminding them to shut off their engines. It was great – and it worked! Now when I go back, it’s just part of driving culture and everyone shuts off their engines instead of needlessly idling them.

  2. Dear Gordon:
    Love your site and, as you should know, since I expressed it in several columns during your tenure as a Vancouver city councillor, have always found your professorial approach to urban affairs stimulating, at least in comparison to some others I have seen elected to that body.
    A few things about your taking issue with my taking issue with the idling law:
    It is unenforcable. According to the city staffer I interviewed, the law was intended more as an educational tool than anything else, along the lines of “wear your bike helmet.” As with the “wear your bike helmet” law, the idling law will be largely ignored and rarely enforced. It will, however, further the modern love of over-regulation, this from a culture that views teeter-totters as unacceptable risks to the safety of our little ones. (I’m waiting for the law that demands children must wear helmets when playing on the now-ubiquitous CSA-approved, height-restricted jungle gyms.)
    It is redundant. As I pointed out in the column, air quality has improved in the Lower Mainland. Why, then, this law when the provincial government is musing that even AirCare is no longer needed? As you pointed out, a series of laws have gone into making the auto industry clean up its act — most notably with the introduction of the catalytic converter and increased efficiencies in its engines — but those weren’t Little Mother laws limiting individual choice. They were national and international laws designed to improve the performance of automobiles in general, and which had a greater effect on our air quality than a silly little law on idling or, for that matter, AirCare. It isn’t the auto industry chafing at the idling law, it’s me.
    Finally, you spell it “curmudgeon” — with a “d” — not “curmungeon.”
    Other than that, keep up the good work.
    Pete McMartin

  3. Pete:
    You are nitpicking and the spelling of curmudgeon is correct; check Nelson’s Canadian or another dictionary.
    My understanding is that not idling also benefits the engine (as well as the owner’s pocketbook).
    Pete, we don’t use spitoons any longer; idling cars unnecessarily has several downsides, including fumes in your face if you happen to be standing or walking nearby and trying to get your share of public air without unnecessary contaminants.
    So if you need a reason to be against idling other than its effects on general air pollution, just consider the localized health effects as well as better public manners.
    Finally, cutting down on idling is also easier on police forces and insurance companies and will contribute to overall efficiency in both the public and private sectors.
    Reasons enough?
    P. S. Is it really that much bother to put on a seat belt? I used to think so when that requirement was first enacted into law; I haven’t thought about it in years. And so it will be with unnecessary idling. The entire history of the automobile industry shows that more and more regulations are needed as usage increases because the rights of others are affected by bad driving practices.

  4. Dear Eric:
    Again, you ignore my two complaints about the idling bylaw.
    One, it is unenforcable and, two, it is redundant.
    Also, I had no idea there was a law outlawing spittoons.
    Pete McMartin

  5. Pete:
    The enforceability argument was made about seat belts and although enforcement of any regulatory law will never be 100% it’s obvious that the seatbelt law is generally respected.
    Redundancy is also unlikely to be a significant issue. It’s more a matter of writing and administering the law in a way that maximizes public awareness and leads to enforcement. Enough enforcement will establish sufficient respect for the law and in turn lead to a norm of public acceptance. Many regulatory laws depend in the initial stages upon sufficient levels of enforcement to establish an appropriate norm. Take school attendance, for example. Once there were truant officers for every school board. There are likley none now.
    There’s nothing unusual about establishing a norm by means of publicity and targeted enforcement and then easing off once the public acquires the habit of obeying the law.

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