Coach owners see benefits of following idle laws

When Ambassatours Gray Line announced in June it was teaming up with  and the Children's Clean-Air Network, and aiming for a mere five minutes of idle time a day as a way to preserve the planet, the Canadian operator (usually best known for its kilts) got a lot of press and praise. But it's not the only one getting on the anti-idling bandwagon. Many coach operators are asking their drivers to minimize idling as a way to both help the environment and their own bottom lines. And the bottom-line benefits can be considerable. Ambassatours estimates it could save nearly 5,300 gallons of fuel annually by eliminating idling.

Not to mention that in many places, it's the law — albeit an often-confusing law. Some municipalities allow a few minutes of idling, while others allow none beyond what is necessary to load and unload passengers. Exceptions are sometimes made for medical reasons, extreme weather and other factors.

They fought the law, but the law won

The American Bus Association has worked to oppose what it calls excessively restrictive idling laws, though it encourages "minimal idling." In June, the ABA testified in front of the New York City Council, protesting stricter regulations. And in a position paper, the ABA states that idling is a necessary step in preparing a motor coach for operation. The paper states the need to pump up the motor coach air-pressure system to ensure brake performance, use wheelchair lifts and operate the HVAC system, steps necessary for interstate-commerce-licensed operators to provide "safe and adequate service, equipment, and facilities." The ABA concludes that a three- or five-minute idling time is insufficient. The problem is compounded because in many cities, there are few places for coaches to park.

Nevertheless, the laws are, if anything, proliferating.

Educating customers

"There are 1,001 rules," says Brian Hagey, general manager of Hagey Coach, Souderton, Pennsylvania. "It's hard to know them all." To be on the safe side, Hagey asks its drivers to keep idling to the bare minimum, and it informs its customers on its website that its coaches may initially be a little warmer or cooler than they might like. It also posts signs in its coaches notifying passengers of the idling policy — something Ambassatours does as well. Customers are usually understanding. Hagey cites the recent example of a Philadelphia Phillies game. The team was losing, and customers started wandering back to the bus early. "They asked the driver to crank up the AC," says Hagey. "Our drivers told them about the idling policy, adding that the driver could be fined, and they didn't say anything more."

Getting drivers on board

There are things drivers can do beyond slowly circling the block — a purpose-defeating practice that the ABA has found to use more fuel and emit more pollution than idling. Hagey instructs its drivers to park in the shade where possible and open the coach's roof hatches. It's less of a problem, he says, when it's cold outside. "Putting 40, 50 people on a coach warms it up pretty fast."

Leduc Bus Lines, Rockland, Ontario, which uses a black-box system to monitor its coaches' idling time, employs block heaters to preheat its engines in the winter. And like Hagey and Ambassatours, it's worked to educate both drivers and passengers.

"We teach our drivers not to run a coach for nothing," says Ghislain Leduc, vice president, adding that paying hefty idling fines is generally the responsibility of the driver who incurred them. Leduc drivers try not to arrive too early at pickup spots like hotels to avoid tempting passengers to board ahead of time. Avoiding curbside idling has another practical advantage. "The vehicle doesn't warm or cool as well as when it's running," says Leduc.

Driver comfort and rest opportunities can still be a challenge. Leduc points out that on ski trips, it is impractical for drivers to remain in cold, parked coaches, and ski destinations don't always offer driver lounges. Drivers end up sitting in the cafeteria or other public space, which tends not to be as restful — especially if they're hoping to catch a nap.

And yet, as Ambassatours has discovered, aiming for idle-free can be a business advantage. "The cost is the same, or less," said Gary Powell, vice president, back when the clean-air campaign debuted. "Achieving our goals brings a financial reward for our company. Plus many of us have small children. This is a good thing for us to do."

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