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Fighting Global Warming No Idle Effort

by: Robert Channick    23 October 2006

Lynn Romanek has launched a grass-roots environmental campaign she hopes will be a real turnoff: less idling in automobiles.

The longtime Glencoe resident has posted signs at schools, temples and businesses asking drivers to shut down their engines while waiting in an effort to curb emissions implicated in global warming.

"I think it's unrealistic to ask somebody to do something to make the environment a cleaner place if you can't get them to do something basic," said Romanek, 43. "I couldn't think of anything more basic than this."

A north suburban real-estate agent, Romanek was driven to action this summer after seeing Al Gore's movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," which warned of catastrophic consequences without the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles and power plants.

Forecasts of melting ice caps, plagues and extreme weather in the wake of rising temperatures were alarming enough that she decided to take the message to the streets, or more precisely the notoriously clogged pickup lane at her daughter's elementary school.

Armed in August with a $150, 2-by-5-foot aluminum sign, she pitched the anti-idling suggestion to Glencoe District 35, where she carpools her 6th grader to Central School. Officials quickly warmed to the idea, and Romanek produced and donated a sign for each of the three buildings in the small kindergarten through 8th-grade district.

Hauled out each morning since the beginning of the school year, the 20-pound A-frame signs read: "Be socially responsible ... TURN OFF YOUR ENGINE WHILE WAITING."

Parents, who usually begin lining up 30 minutes before dismissal, have taken the message to heart.

"We've got a lot of our parents that pick up kids, and for the most part they're doing it, they're turning off their cars," said Supt. Cathlene Crawford. "In the past you had pretty much everybody idling."

Research shows that the average person idles a car for five to 10 minutes a day, according to the California Energy Commission. Vehicles account for 27 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, so the Environmental Protection Agency recommends turning the engine off if you expect to idle more than 30 seconds.

Romanek got the no-idling idea from stopglobalwarming.org, a Web site run by environmental activist and "An Inconvenient Truth" producer Laurie David.

"This is a huge thing that people can do," David said. "If we could get everybody just to stop idling, it would be an enormous reduction in carbon emissions."

David, who is married to comedian Larry David, engineered a similar no-idling policy at her daughters' Los Angeles elementary school last year and applauded Romanek's effort.

"I think it's fantastic," David said. "It is exactly what I hope will happen."

In June, Illinois joined more than 20 states that have enacted idling restrictions for large diesel vehicles. In the Chicago and East St. Louis metropolitan areas, trucks and buses are prohibited from running for more than 10 minutes an hour while parked, except in extreme temperatures. No regulations exist for cars, but officials support the concept.

"Shutting off cars is nothing that we have a program for, but it's very much in line with the overall goals of what we're trying to do, which would be to reduce emissions," said Maggie Carson, a spokeswoman for the Illinois EPA.

Energized by success, Romanek expanded her campaign to include the Glencoe Park District, Am Shalom congregation in Glencoe, Temple Jeremiah in Northfield, a Hubbard Woods grade school and most recently A.W. Zengeler Cleaners, which agreed this week to place no-idling signs at its drive-through locations in Libertyville, Deerfield, Northfield and Northbrook.

"It's something that really never dawned on me," said Tom Zengeler, president of the nearly 150-year-old family business. "Some people do turn off their engines now, but I felt if we brought it to their attention, people would do it more often."

Romanek now has set her sights on several larger chains, including Deerfield-based Walgreens. She is trying to get the company to post signs at its 4,562 drive-through pharmacy locations throughout the nation, so far to no avail.

At least one Hollywood producer has become a fan of Romanek's efforts.

"She says she was inspired by the movie, and I'm inspired by what she's done," David said. "She's a hero."