John Townsend
Public Relations Manager, DC
O: (202) 481-6820 (ext. 4462108)
C: (202) 253-2171

WASHINGTON, D. C. (Tuesday, January 2, 2018) ––It is a temptation that should be resisted at all costs even on the coldest days. Yet as the brutal blast of arctic air stretches into its second week over the Washington metro area, many motorists in the region will have a strong compulsion to warm up their cars for a few minutes and then dash back into their home or apartment, and all of its comforts, while their cars idle unattended in the driveway.  It can a big mistake on several fronts, counsels AAA Mid-Atlantic. 


Many area motorists didn’t start their vehicles on the coldest New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day since 1940, or in almost eight decades. It is why the temptation to idle their vehicles will be even greater today, especially as hundreds of thousands of Washington area residents return to work or to their parental duty and devotion of dropping the kids off at school for the first time since the holidays. But idling your vehicle for more than 30 seconds is not only a big waste of time on the day after New Year’s Day, it is also perhaps an even bigger waste of precious fuel, and that is the case on any day of the year, for matter.  Plus, depending upon the jurisdiction, you can be fined for doing so, if you are caught.  


“If you average idling your vehicle ten minutes a day during the three winter months you are simply increasing the wear and tear on your vehicle by eleven additional hours. You are also wasting an average of about 5.5 gallons of gasoline,” explained James Spires, Regional Manager, AAA Car Care Centers. “If you must, the best way to warm a modern engine is to start it and allow it to idle for 15 to 30 seconds while you fasten your seat belt and check the mirrors. A little longer idle time may be appropriate in the winter if you need to clear snow and ice from the windshield and other parts of the car.”


Even worse, it can cause you to fall prey to “puffers,” or to auto thievery, if you let your vehicle idle unattended, especially with the keys inside in the ignition. As you can imagine, the eponymous caper derives its very name from cunning car thieves who target those telltale “puffs” of smoke or exhaust wafting aloft from the tailpipes of idling or running vehicles, as motorists attempt to warm up their cold engines, frosty windows, and ice-cold vehicle cabins during bouts of  frigid winter weather.  Nowadays, it also describes the wily auto thieves who coined the term.


An idling car is the “devil’s workshop.” It is not by happenstance that January ranks as the month with the highest number of “puffer thefts.” On average, seven “puffer vehicles,” as they are called, are stolen each day in the United States. On top of that, a car with the keys or fob left inside is stolen “every six-and-a-half minutes” nationwide. In 2014 alone, nearly 45,000 cars were stolen with the keys inside, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB). It reached 57,000 vehicles the following year. In 2015, “one of out every eight vehicles stolen had the keys or fob inside,” the NICB warns.


Imagine the compunction and regret that follows. On the one hand, “that can cost you a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars, depending on your level of theft insurance,” the NICB cautions. On the other hand, “many of those cars are not insured against theft, and the owner is left holding the bag and paying for a new car.” It is estimated “Puffers account for nearly 15 percent of all auto thefts reported each year.” In December, a suspect wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Trust Me,” and an accomplice, were reportedly apprehended after allegedly stealing a car while it was warming up in Fairfax County.  People are basically handing over the keys to their car as a gift to auto thieves to steal and commit other violent crimes by leaving your vehicle running unattended, and especially during cold weather,” law enforcement officials warn.


Warming up the car can also become a parent’s worst nightmare. Leaving the keys inside the vehicle is also a nightmarish scenario when a baby is on board.  Here are some object lessons.


·         In November 2017, a running car with a one-year-old child inside was stolen in the District, while the father was running an errand. Fortunately, the father and son were reunited after the thief abandoned the vehicle about a mile away in Northeast Washington, D.C.  

·         Also in November 2017, a stolen car with a one-year-old baby girl inside was recovered with the child unharmed in Baltimore.  

·         In August 2017, a man stole a car with a five-year-old child inside in Glen Burnie.

·         In January 2017, a man stole a car with two children, ages 4 and 1, inside in Baltimore. Police say the mother was unloading the car, when she walked away for a moment, leaving the keys in the ignition and her sons in the car, when the thief jumped inside and drove off. The boys were found unharmed and the thief was also charged with kidnapping, auto theft and reckless endangerment.

·         In October 2003, a man stole an idling vehicle while a four-year-old preschooler was napping in the back seat. The incident occurred at a convenience store in Manassas. The child and the vehicles were recovered.


Idling a vehicle wastes between a quarter to a half gallon of fuel an hour.  Idling also increases the  wear and tear on your engine, and warming up the vehicle can shorten the longevity or life expectancy of your vehicle, warn automotive technicians at AAA Car Care Centers across the Washington Metro Area.  Cars left running with the keys in the ignition are prime targets and easy marks for car thieves during the winter months or cold spells, area law enforcement officials and AAA Insurance agents warn. In addition to unwittingly granting an engraved invitation to “puffers” or opportunistic thieves who steal cars while they are idling, with the keys in the ignition, in the driveway or on the curb, it is an invitation to a ticket.


Because vehicles are the largest source of emissions, even on frigid days and nights, jurisdictions have promulgated green vehicle laws and eco-friendly driving regulations that carry fines for idling vehicles. 

·         It is against the law to idle a vehicle for more than five consecutive minutes in Maryland.

·         The District’s  idling laws apply to public vehicles for hire and commercial vehicles, not to passenger vehicles. As such, vehicles are restricted from idling for more than three minutes while the motor vehicle is parked, stopped or standing. Vehicles are permitted to idle for up to five minutes, it is below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. If caught, violators can be issued a ticket by authorities in the nation’s capital. The civil fine for the violation is $1,000 for a first-time violation. It can double for subsequent violations, reaching as high as $8,000.

·         Virginia’s idling laws apply to commercial vehicles or to public vehicles. Such vehicles are prohibited from idling longer than three minutes while parked or stopped in commercial areas or residential enclaves.  Virginia puts a “ten-minute idling cap” on tour buses and diesel-powered vehicles.

             Warming up the car before driving it, is a relic of the past, “dating back to the time when carbureted engines dominated the road,” explains Popular Mechanics. It says “idling does surprisingly little to warm the actual engine” in vehicles that rolled off the assembly line in the last 30 years.  “It takes five to 15 minutes for your engine to warm up while driving, so take it nice and easy for the first part of your drive.”


Follow us on Twitter: @AAADCNews

Like us on Facebook: AAA Mid-Atlantic News


Washington, D.C. Mailing Address:
1405 G Street NW
Washington, DC 20005

AAA provides automotive, travel and insurance services to 57 million members nationwide and nearly 78,000 members in the District of Columbia.  AAA advocates for the safety and mobility of its members and has been committed to outstanding road service for more than 100 years.  The not-for-profit, fully tax-paying member organization works on behalf of motorists, who can now map a route, find local gas prices, discover discounts, book a hotel and track their roadside assistance service with the AAA Mobile app for iPhone, iPad and Android. For more information, visit

TEDx Wilmington Salon

Who's in the Driver's Seat? The Transformation of Transportation

On Tuesday, October 17, 2017, AAA and TEDx Wilmington held the first TEDx Salon dedicated to ideas worth spreading in transportation.

This event had:

  • 12 live talks given by 13 speakers
  • 368 people in attendance at the live event
  • More than 7,500 viewed the event online through Livestream, viewing events, and on the AAA Associate network
  • Online viewers came from all 50 states and approximately 30 countries around the world

View a slideshow from the event

This TEDx WilmingtonSalon was organized in partnership with AAA

public affairs

Keeping Member's interests at the forefront

Contacts by region

fuel price finder

Find the lowest gas price in your area

Find prices

gas information

Tools, tips and other resources

learn more


Local news stories & information

Watch now