Feb 1, 2009

Drive-through shame on you

What they think New Voices A forum for readers under 30

Think of all the times your car idles over the course of one day. Whether it's ordering a hamburger, depositing a check at the bank or just waiting at a stoplight, idling and its negative impacts on our environment come naturally to most Americans.

Many people love to blame big industry for the massive amounts of carbon dioxide emitted into the air, when actually, according to a study by researchers at Vanderbilt University, 30 percent to 40 percent of all carbon-dioxide emissions produced by our country come from individuals like you and me.

Also from this study, car idling in America annually produces 93 million tons of carbon dioxide. As a ninth-grader at Winter Park High School, I was required to conduct an independent science-fair project on a topic of my choice. For my experiment, I wanted to determine on average how much carbon dioxide is produced by vehicles idling in a Steak 'N Shake drive-through and whether walking inside instead of using the drive-through would have a significantly greater positive impact on the environment.

I easily tested this experiment over the course of four Saturdays in December between noon and 1 p.m., recording the time vehicles spent idling in the drive-through and the specific type of vehicle. Then, using research conducted by North Carolina State University, I determined the amount of carbon dioxide produced by each vehicle based on a four-vehicle class system.

My results were significant. My research concluded that idling vehicles produce an average of 1.4 grams per second of carbon dioxide. Based on this information, if Steak 'N Shake were to close the drive-throughs at all of its 502 restaurants from noon to 1 p.m. for one year, it would prevent 1,682.2 metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the earth's atmosphere.

This amount outweighs 21 space shuttle orbiters. This is just one restaurant chain for one hour a day, for a year. McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's alone operate roughly 27,995 restaurants in the U.S. and Canada. Ponder that. If consumers decide to park their vehicles and walk inside to get something to eat, not only are they saving on average 1.4 grams of carbon dioxide for every second they would have idled in line, they are receiving exercise that will help to burn off their unhealthy fast food, benefiting the consumer individually.

Why not ax drive-throughs altogether, you say? A recent New York Times article reported that 60 percent of McDonald's business is from its drive-through-window. McDonald's likely would hire an army of lobbyists to fight legislation that would ban the drive-through.

There are other ways that we can reduce emissions and keep the convenience of the drive-through. Americans could drive hybrid vehicles similar to the Toyota Prius, which after idling a few seconds shuts off its gas-powered engine and runs on an electric motor. This type of engine has fewer emissions.

Drive-throughs are not all bad, and many people enjoy the quick service. The real question is how to provide this quick service to vehicles without the idle emissions. Some answers: driving vehicles that do not emit carbon dioxide while idling; walking inside to purchase fast food; or having runners from inside the store deliver orders to cars parked in the restaurant's lot.

In light of the efforts by President Barack Obama this week to allow 14 states the right to set their own carbon-dioxide-emissions standards, I think that reducing personal idling is one place we can pitch in -- just like Obama called on us to do in his inaugural speech.

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