Idling is the Devil’s Workshop

January 19, 2018 § 2 Comments

Some time in November of last year, I began to notice vehicles parked outside the courthouse, their engines idling. People apparently were leaving their car engines running while they ran into the courthouse to conduct some brief (I suppose) business. I would say on average I observed this phenomenon once a day up to Christmas.

It would have been more or less understandable if the perpetrators were suffering through some of our more recent sub-zero weather, but before Christmas the weather was mostly balmy.

At the time, I wrote it off as simply a silly thing to do.  Since then, however, I have discovered that there are some legal implications. Consider MCA 63-3-909:

No person driving or in charge of a motor vehicle shall permit it to stand unattended without first stopping the engine, locking the ignition and removing the key, and, when standing upon any perceptible grade, without effectively setting the brake thereon and turning the front wheels to the curb or side of the highway.

MCA 63-3-201 makes failure to comply with the above a misdemeanor.

The illegality of unattended idling vehicles came to my attention recently when I read of Mississippians in Jackson and Biloxi being ticketed for the offense. One of those cases was on private property.

Now, I am not privy to the legislature’s thinking when it decided to adopt this measure, but I am willing to bet that environmental concerns were somewhere near the bottom of the top-ten reasons behind it. Most likely it was the product of the liability insurance lobby trying to address res ipsa loquitur and per-se-negligence liability insurance implications. The law is in the chapter on “Rules of the Road” — not the private driveway, and refers to the “curb” and “side of the highway,” connoting public ways. So I doubt that the lawmakers intended to make criminals of private citizens warming up their cars in their own garages on a frosty December morn.

If the goal of the law is to criminalize silly, even stupid behavior, then I think that it has zeroed in on a worthy target. Leaving your car idling while you run into Winn-Dixie to pick up a few things, or into City Hall to pay your water bill, or into the courthouse to buy your tag, just strikes me as a self-indulgent, unnecessary exercise (I do, however, plead guilty to leaving my truck running in 22° cold while I picked up my dry cleaning on the frigid morning that I wrote this).

The folly of leaving your car running idle was brought home to me back in the 1990’s when the Mayor of Meridian emerged from a downtown restaurant after lunch and discovered a city police patrol car idling in a parking space in front of the establishment, with the keys in the ignition. The Mayor hopped behind the wheel and drove the car three blocks to the police station, where he parked and locked the car, pocketing the keys. When the officer returned to where he had parked his vehicle and discovered it missing, he radioed in that it had been stolen, and an APB was issued. A frantic search ensued, and in an hour or so the misplaced car was found right in front of the police station. Somehow the keys were located in the Mayor’s office, and in order to recover his wayward key ring the sheepish officer had to submit to the Mayor’s tongue-lashing. Considering the scope of unpleasantries that could have occurred if some malefactor had gotten hold of his car rather than the Mayor, the officer was lucky to get off so lightly.

That incident highlights something we all have observed: law enforcement officers often leave their official vehicles running while they step away to tend to other business. I suppose it’s a time-saving measure in the event of an emergency. Other first responders do, too, even with their private vehicles, although that can get carried to extremes. As I finished fueling my truck one day, an SUV pulled up to the pump behind me, and out jumped a young woman in EMT gear. An EMT tag adorned the front of the vehicle. She kept her engine running as she began pumping. I was happy to exit the scene as promptly as I could before everything went up in a Hollywoodesque blaze of glory.

But don’t blame the perpetrators. We are governed by the Law of Unattended Consequences.



§ 2 Responses to Idling is the Devil’s Workshop

  • John says:

    That was a terribly run-on story.:-0

  • FS says:

    The language of 63-3-909 is the same since it’s enactment in 1938. I agree environmental concerns were probably among the reasons for this statute. One must wonder if modern technology makes this archaic, as with several others of Title 63.
    There’s one “modern” case, quite tragic, surrounding 63-3-909: Southern Heritage Ins. Co. v. C.E. Frazier Const. Co., Inc. 809 So.2d 668 (2002). The Supreme Court gives it an interesting analysis.

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