Enforcing proposed Macon anti-idling law to be challenging

Crafting an effective law that restricts idling vehicles in Macon may prove difficult.

City officials have looked to Atlanta for inspiration. The state capital is one of the few Georgia cities with an anti-idling ordinance on the books. There, trucks are prohibited from running their engines for more than 15 minutes while stopped. Violators are subject to fines of at least $500. Various exceptions are made for emergency vehicles, utility vehicles, school buses and engines idling in cold weather.

But an official in Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin’s administration said the law, put on the books in 2002, is not used. It needs resources to be effective — police to write tickets, signs in key places advising motorists of the law and media and Internet campaigns to encourage better habits, said Mandy Schmitt, director of Atlanta’s Office of Sustainability. But those resources have not been available, she said.

“So it’s really completely unenforceable,” Schmitt said.

Macon Mayor Robert Reichert said he also is skeptical that the law could be reasonably enforced in Macon. It would require police to watch a vehicle idle for 15 minutes before issuing a citation — and he has reservations about making the action a criminal offense. Much could be accomplished by issuing guidelines and educating the public on better driving habits instead, he said.

The mayor likened it to advising people to save energy by turning off lights when they leave a room.

“Should that be a law?” he said. “No.”

However, the mayor and other officials do not dispute the need to find ways to achieve better air quality in Macon. In February, state environmental officials notified the city that it’s included in an area containing Bibb and part of Monroe County that will be reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for exceeding the level of ozone allowed in the air.

Although the actual amount of the pollutant has been decreasing for several years, ever tightening standards threaten to move Macon back into non-attainment status. Non-attainment can threaten industrial growth by requiring more stringent permitting processes that new companies might shy away from.

The EPA will finalize its non-attainment boundaries by next March, giving local leaders a little bit of time to put forth a good-faith effort showing the feds they are serious about improving air quality. Passing anti-idling laws is one of the ways they could do that. Advocates say even when not enforced, the law can look good to EPA officials and may inspire some leniency.

Councilman Rick Hutto first proposed the legislation last week. His initial version of the ordinance suggested all vehicles traveling in or through Macon be subject to the rules, making exceptions similar to those allowed by Atlanta.

After questions arose about how police would apply the law, he withdrew the measure for further work. Hutto said he now intends to propose two phases for implementation. In the first phase, the law would apply only to city-owned and operated vehicles. It should not be a stretch, he said, given that the police chief has previously issued an executive order restricting idling in his own department.

“All this is doing is codifying that (order) for all city vehicles,” he said.

The second phase, expanding the restrictions to everybody, is admittedly more tricky, Hutto said. But he envisions an education campaign between the two phases that could pave the way for a more enforceable law. He thinks financial resources to run the campaign could be found in the Middle Georgia Clean Air Coalition and would not require Macon to pony up the money.

Other potential problems could be surmounted by taking ideas from places where restrictions have worked, such as California, which has a statewide anti-idling law, Hutto said.

“Certainly we need to look at the viability of enforcing the second phase,” he said.