Remote car starters are electronic devices allowing the automatic start of a car from a distance of up to 1.5 kilometres. They can be used to warm up the car in winter time or to cool it down in summer time. The duration of such warming or cooling varies with outside temperature, often taking several minutes per episode, with the associated combustion related pollution and greenhouse gas (GHG) production. In Quebec, one car in ten was equipped with a remote car starter in 2006, while other regions in Canada had much lower rates, hovering between 1 and 4% [1
]. These Canadian estimates were associated with high absolute numbers, as in 2005, Québec had a total of about 4.2 million light vehicles (which includes cars, station wagons, vans, sport utility vehicles and pick-ups) and other regions, approximately 13.8 million [2
]. This means between half a million and one million light vehicles owners can use their remote starters in Canada for idling their vehicles. While no data seems available on remote starter use globally, it represents an annual $250-million market in the United States of America, which means that more than a million such devices get installed on cars every year [3
However, no detailed data is systematically collected by Canadian authorities to document the use of this technology. Nevertheless, Natural Resources Canada reports that people with remote starters tend to start their vehicles long before there are ready to drive, throughout the year [4
], most commonly to warm them up in winter [5
], instead of less polluting alternatives such as using cloth seat covers, dressing appropriately or plugging in the car in the morning (or overnight) to warm up the coolant and/or engine oil or to feed AC powered car heaters.
In fact, idling an engine to warm it rather than driving for approximately 30 seconds after a cold-start is not only unnecessary according to experts (because a vehicle’s engine and other parts warm up faster when the vehicle is moving), but also an habit which produces more pollution than if the engine were shut off and restarted [6
]. Consequently if every driver of a light vehicle in Canada reduced by only five minutes daily the time that his vehicle idled, it would prevent more than 1.4 million tonnes of CO2
being emitted into the atmosphere [7
], which is equivalent to a reduction of 320,000 automobiles travelling for an entire year, or 1.8 % of the total vehicle fleet. Besides this reduction is that of emissions of fine particulates and other transport-related atmospheric pollutants (e.g. sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide) other than CO2
, of which some also have a greenhouse effect (e.g. nitrous oxide), as well as the reduction of health impacts related to air pollution, particularly in young children, the elderly, people with respiratory problems (e.g., asthmatics) or people with a heart condition [8
]. Those population groups are also among the most vulnerable to health impacts from climate change [15
Clearly, remote car starters encourage motorists to warm up their vehicles by idling the motor – a polluting habit with impacts on public health which becomes even more problematic with the increasing supply and demand for this type of technology in Canada [1
]. The aim of this study was to examine diverse perceptions and individual characteristics associated with use of a remote car starter in winter (among other climate change related behaviors) through a survey carried out in 2005 in southern Québec (Canada) in the context of a research program on some climate change (CC) adaptation and mitigation strategies [16
This population survey on beliefs and adaptations about climate change, including the use of remote car starters, did not intend to measure the determinants of that behaviour, the impact of such use on car idling, the levels of air pollutants, nor the impact of pollutants on the health of the population.
The survey is broadly representative of the Québec adult population for the variables presented in Table 2
. It also brings to light that among the 83.8% of respondents used a car – which is very close to the percentage of 81% of Québec households reported in the Canadian Households and Environment Survey [21
] – approximately one-third used a remote car starter in winter. Furthermore, using a remote car starter in winter was not influenced by smog warnings. From a public health standpoint, these results are of concern for several reasons.
Firstly, vehicle exhaust from idling (related in part to the use of remote car starters) contribute to air pollution and climate change [28
]. Even in densely populated city centers where many people use public transport (such as Montréal in this survey), outdoor air quality can be severely affected by vehicle idling, at the local (ex. around schools) or community level [7
]. Concerning greenhouse gases (GHG), between 1990 and 2005, Canada’s transport sector has increased its share of emissions by 33% and is responsible for the equivalent of 32% of the total observed GHG emissions growth [29
Air pollution – of which primary sources include vehicle exhaust – is known to cause a variety of adverse health effects, ranging from minor illnesses to emergency room visits, hospital admissions and premature death [30
]. For example, for the Québec regions where complete data on atmospheric pollution was available in 2002 (covering roughly half of the population of Québec, or 3,6 million people), exposure to fine particulates, ozone and nitrous oxides was associated (using prudent assumptions) to 1,974 premature deaths, 414 emergency room visits for respiratory problems, 38 emergency room visits for cardiac problems, and to 246,705 days with asthma symptoms [33
]. Currently, specific and periodic monitoring of vehicle idling (including the part related to remote car starter use) and its impact on atmospheric pollutants and GHG emissions does not exist in Canada.
Secondly, as found in this study, using a remote car starter does not seem to be influenced by the smog warnings and preventative recommendations issued by Environment Canada through the media and other initiatives. Incentive and voluntary programs such as Info-Smog and the Auto$mart Program have been in existence respectively since 1994 [34
] and 1998 [6
], apparently with little behavioural impact [35
]. Moreover, there were only 61 Canadian municipal and community initiatives against motor vehicle idling in 2005, among the more than 3,000 Canadian municipalities. Only 26 of these initiatives were considered as regulatory, either by governing idling specifically, or by including clauses against it in other existing regulations [5
]. The remaining 35 initiatives were of the voluntary-approach type to behavioural change, such as public education campaigns or incentive programs.
Thirdly, in this study, the prevalence of use of a remote car starter was higher for women than for men, allophones and francophones than for anglophones, in more rural than urban regions. Possible explanations for such variations could include higher perceived intensity of cold for women [37
] or allophone (ex. immigrants from tropical countries) [38
], distinct clothing habits (ex. clothing consisting of fabrics providing less efficient retention of the heat given off by their bodies, such as rayon [39
]), or even the fact of living in a region characterized by colder winters (ex. regions 2 and 8, Figure 1
]). Given that drivers living in peripheral regions are more dependent on their cars for daily trips [41
], they are susceptible to using remote starters more often. However, more research is needed to understand why some people have a greater propensity to use a remote car starter, because the significant differences were not very strong (c index: 0.62), indicating the potential contribution of other types of factors like driver differences in the trip chaining behaviour related, for instance, to children care or other family chores [42
], social factors, attitudes and beliefs [43
]), such as the belief on the contribution of anthropogenic causes to climate change in the last fifty years. The availability of remote car starters also seems to incite motorists to develop and maintain the easier habit to warm up their vehicles with a remote starter by idling the engine instead of adopting less polluting strategies, such as dressing appropriately. Such studies would help policy maker’s better target education campaigns supporting behaviour modification programs.
Consequently, in Canada and other similar Nordic regions (ex. USA or Northern Europe), it would be appropriate to implement long-term comprehensive national programs to reduce all types of light vehicles idling, including actions against the use of remote car starters, to reduce pollutant and GHG emissions at the source. It is indeed likely that remote car starters are also used in summer to cool down cars by the now widely available air-conditioners, thus increasing their contribution to air pollution. Such programs could simultaneously merge feasible adaptation and mitigation measures of the “no-regrets” type (which are measures with climatic and non-climatic benefits), including both voluntary and regulatory tools, to deal effectively with environmental problems. These risks management measures could include:
specific and periodic monitoring of the idling phenomenon;
legislative and regulatory framework updates, including sunset dates to phase out remote starters (for users, vehicle builders and installation shops);
dynamic technological improvement of new vehicles (ex. devices that automatically cut off an engine after 10 seconds of immobilization while on park or with braking, already available in hybrid vehicles [45
simultaneous actions such as public education, incentive or regulatory campaigns aimed at individual and collective behaviours, taking cultural differences into account and based on results of health behaviour research; and,
evaluation and monitoring of all of these approaches.
Our results, however, show that even with good intentions and voluntary incentive programs, behavioural change remains difficult. Emphasis on the elimination of remote car starters and accelerated introduction of automatic shut-off devices are likely to be more effective in our opinion, given the only marginal impact of even well-publicized smog advisories in Canada [35
This population survey on beliefs and current behaviours about climate change presents some limitations, however. As mentioned earlier, it did not intend to measure the impact of using remote car starters on the levels of air pollutants (including several greenhouse gases) associated with idling motor of vehicles, nor the impact of related pollutants on human health. This has limited the scope of questioning on the specific topic of use of remote car starters, its determinants and impacts.
Furthermore, for financial and operational reasons, only the household was random sampled. It is possible that respondents interviewed by the polling firm were most inclined to participate to the study, that if they were be randomly chosen among all the persons composed an household, even though the reverse remains another possibility [46
]. In the same way, the full socio-demographic profile of the non-respondents remains unknown and cannot be compared to the profile of the respondents.
Although our response rate (70%) for this telephone survey is considered very good in the polling industry, many potentially eligible individuals did not agree to participate in the study. Volunteer bias could have possibly influenced the study results, but the percentage of respondents and non-respondents were similar across health regions of Québec (p = 0.4). This poll also excludes automatically unpublished numbers, inhabitants not speaking either French or English and homeless people. On the statistical side, the index C for the retained model is not very high at 0.62; this might be explained by the absence of the above-mentioned factors related to the determinants of behaviour. The addition of such psychosocial variables could probably improve the model performance, moreover by using another dataset for the validation of our results.