Answer Man: Is it idle fancy to leave police cars idling?

August 19, 2018

Hello, Answer Man: At many of the summer Down by the Riverside concerts I have attended, I have noticed there are police cars left unattended with the motor running. To me this is a huge waste of gas and wear and tear to our police cars. The question that I wonder every time I walk past the car/truck is, “Why?’ — Jim Blum

Why, indeed, Jim.

It’s not uncommon to see squad cars and other law enforcement vehicles sitting on the side of the road with the motor running for long periods of time, but I can assure you it’s not because police officers are idle or want to preserve a comfortable refuge for themselves on hot August afternoons.

Keeping squad cars climate controlled is important, not for officer comfort, but to protect climate-sensitive equipment and emergency medical supplies.

In the same way that chocolate bars melt, leather seats become scalding and cheap smartphones overheat when locked inside a car in the sun for too long, the computers and other electronic equipment squad cars are outfitted with these days could be negatively impacted by extreme temperatures.

Additionally, certain emergency medical supplies such as Narcan need to be kept within a narrow temperature range. Think of it like the tub of Belgian chocolate Haagen-Dazs ice cream you’re rushing home from the freezer section.

But there’s more to it than keeping hot things hot and cold things cold or sensitive electronics at a happy medium, Capt. John Sherwin of the Rochester Police Department explained.

“There’s equipment in (squad cars), like computers and electronic systems, that power down and power up each time the vehicle is started and there can be some connectivity issues if the car sits off for too long,” he said.

If officers respond to an emergency situation, it’s important that their equipment be up and running. If they’re kept waiting by a tipping hourglass, they might not receive accurate information or be able to respond as they should.

So, while you’re correct in pointing out that constant idling is an inefficient use of gas under ordinary circumstances, when you weigh the costs versus benefits, I think we can agree the tradeoff is more than reasonable.

And, as Sherwin assured me, idling isn’t as hard on squad cars as it would be on your sedan or my sports car. Police vehicles are specifically designed to idle for long periods of time.

There’s no security risk to it either, Sherwin says, because squad cars are outfitted with security systems similar to the new automatic starter features in recent makes and models of civilian cars.

“If someone were to access that vehicle and try to drive it away, basically, they can’t,” he said.

It’s a little like if someone tried to pass themselves off as the Answer Man. I can assure you, they’d never get away with it.

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