Key is not to start engines too soon

To the Editor:

This summer many year-round and summer Island residents rallied around Vineyard Transit Authority (VTA) bus drivers for better wages, benefits, and job security. Now it is time for us to support another important group of transportation workers, the Steamship Authority (SSA) workers, while at the same time protecting your own health. As a summer resident and frequent off-season visitor, I rely on the SSA ferries to transport my family and me to and from the Vineyard.  

Over the years, I have noted more and more ferry riders starting their car engines well before they will be exiting the ferry. This is a major air quality issue for our SSA workers and everyone else who is on the car deck of the boat. Car exhaust contains carbon monoxide which even at low levels can cause confusion and depression. At high levels carbon monoxide exposure can lead to death. Nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide are also in car exhaust, low-level chronic exposure to these gases can cause health problems such as lung and heart disease. Particulate matter is also found in car emissions, these tiny particles can pass the protective structures of our respiratory system and can get into our lungs and circulate throughout the body. Other pollutants are known to cause cancer, such as benzene, which can attach to the small particulates and expose the person breathing the polluted air to the carcinogen. All of this is compounded on the hot, humid, summer days with the humidity adding to the particulate pollution and holding the car emissions in the boat’s car deck. One may think, “Well, the doors to the ferry are open, so it is okay to start the car.” – NO! Depending on the direction of the wind, and we all know that can be variable, car exhaust can be blown back on the ship and concentrate the pollutants.  Air quality is the great equalizer – you can’t buy your way out of it. We all breathe the same air. So when people start their cars too soon they are polluting the air that the workers have to breathe all day long and the air that car passengers are breathing – even if the air conditioning in your car is on recirculate, at some point the polluted air will get into the car. 

I have spoken to frustrated SSA workers, the dock captain in Oak Bluffs, and I have even walked through the boat telling people to turn off their engines myself (perhaps you have met me.) When there are signs on the ferry stating not to start car engines until one is told by the crew, they are rare and in places that are not easily visible. The Steamship announcement to return to your car as the boat reaches its destination is not consistent in reminding passengers not to start their car and is frequently inaudible.  

Air quality on the ferry is a health concern for all of us who ride the ferry, especially the dedicated crew of the SSA. We all are responsible for following the rules and not start car engines until instructed to do so. But this is a challenge when the rules are not made clear. There should be visible signs every 10 feet on the car deck on every ferry, with fines for those who do not comply with the rule. Repeated offenders should lose the privilege of riding the ferry with an automobile. Afterall, if someone does not have concern for others and cannot follow rules, do we really want them driving on the Island?

Ruth McDermott-Levy
Oak Bluffs summer resident


  1. First off I completely agree.
    Second, and in general, people are horrible listeners, and unless told personally (such as when they get their boarding pass, or printed on their boarding pass) , they won’t do it.
    However, how is it that the ssa can’t load or unload a boat in somewhat of the same order? You know, left to right or right to left or middle first ? Whatever, if people don’t have to guess then at least some will know what to expect next. Yes vehicles and large trucks are mixed different, but that speaks to the lack of a cohesive standard. There are not that many variables.

    • Greetings. I can speak a little to some of the points you raised. First and foremost I will touch on what should be done about all the people prematurely starting their vehicles on the boats because this is a major issue. Carbon monoxide is a silent killer. It is cumulatively stored in our bodies–which is awful for our long term health. When I say OUR I mean everyone on the ferry…The crew, vehicle passengers, bicyclists, motorcyclists, walk-ons, maintenance, etc. Vehicle emissions on the ferries CAN be mitigated to acceptable levels if a few changes were employed.

      First off, The boats need more signage stating that Vehicles MUST NOT be started until the car in front of you is departing the vessel! Both the freight deck, stairs leading down and the main passenger areas should have such signage. I would go as far as saying the old signs that plainly said it was a $$$ fine if people got caught with their vehicles running on the ferry should absolutely be used considering the severity of this hazard.

      Second, the purser announcement (while commonly accepted and adopted by just about every purser on the boats needs to be reworded from “Do not start your vehicles until instructed to do so by a crew member”…the reality is that no crew members do this, it is not feasible and the boats are understaffed w/ deck crew already. The pursers need to say the same as the signage and reinforce it by mentioning it multiple times during the announcement. I understand that some passengers will not hear the announcement and will start their cars early–this is where the couple crew members not unloading/directing the vehicles off the boat should make a sweep and ensure no vehicles are running.

      Lastly, SSA management needs to take charge of this issue and offer up some passenger vehicle etiquette/education as pertaining to hazards of exhaust fumes. Make a website alert and create a physical flyer all ticket sellers hand out to people that purchase car/truck tickets…or even better, have it printed on the back side of their vehicle ticket or receipt. it is not rocket science.

      As to your specific issues about unloading–With the craziness of summer in full swing and the construction with the slips I can assure you there are MANY variables…I.E. Currently in Wood’s Hole, not all boats have use of a passenger plank. This makes it difficult to unload because all walk offs must exit from the freight deck where the cars are being unloaded. The big boats will typically unload the wings asap to move the passengers down to the freight deck to allow the crew to clean the passenger areas. In order to do this sometimes the crew must pull a few vehicles from the middle and side lanes to create a path for the wing lanes to drive off. Many other factors also add to this orchestrated ballet of unloading such as tide issues, truck weights, ambulances, medical passengers, concessions/stores coming onboard for the crew or snack bar, relief trips, etc. It is not as simple as going from left to right. There can not be a cohesive standard for a fleet of boats that are all different (size of vessel, crew, passengers, weather, etc.) simply just a way of doing things for each specific ferry that makes sense, is safe and gets everyone where they would like to go :p

  2. Any walk-off bicyclist or motorcycle operator can understand the frustration of the emissions in a somewhat confined space. Even the Ferry doors open and ventilation fans running the air gets “thick”

  3. Thanks for worrying about the air quality on the boats
    I am sure the people on the freight deck are amused with you telling them what to do, sadly no one is going to listen anyway, you might be ruining their vacation.
    Maybe it is time for you to take the island Queen instead

  4. i understand your concern and can’t believe people are doing this! though i don’t believe it has much to do with signage or announcements. it has always been the rule not to start your cars until directed – for the very reasons you stated – it is also common sense! i believe it is a change in attitude, a “me first and me only” mind set that makes people disregard rules and ignore common courtesy. maybe some will read your letter and think twice. otherwise, i don’t know how one can legislate morality.

  5. Thank you! I’d extend this to the ferry lines outside. There are signs posted instructing people not to run their engines. Yes, it’s hot, but if you roll down your windows there is always an ocean breeze. That’s part of the reason people come here, right?
    Running engines unnecessarily is bad for our environment, stinks the place up, and will make me silently hate you from my own turned-off car.
    Unless you’ve got something going on health-wise which really demands that you stay cool, keep your engine off. It’s common sense – and it’s the law.

  6. My simple solution to when someone starts their engine early is to get out of my car and nicely ask the offending driver to please turn his engine off until his lane starts moving. That and a smile works every time.

  7. “” follow rules””.? Rules went out the window years ago. No one follows rules. Not individuals, not governments , not Presidents,. The writer wants selective rules followed but what about rules I want followed? We are all swimming downstream and those of us trying for upstream are overwhelmed. The broken window premise is in play. Don’t repair thing and there will be more disorder. Same applies to rules. It is too late and will get worse.

    • Andrew– are you implying that no one should enforce any rules because some of the rules you wish to adhere to are broken by a few people ?

        • Andrew– really ? you “try” to follow rules — good for you– the current regime in the united States, , which you clearly support tramples on
          constitutional norms–repeal the 14 th amendment by executive order ?
          really ? your argument is defenseless,

  8. And from my observation taking the ferry 3-4 times a month — most of the offenders (either on ferry or in line) are cocooned in their climate controlled BMW/Mercedes/Audi not giving a care in the world about the rest of us. I do wish the SSA would have a few more employees with roles including enforcing the “start your engines” rule. The couple of SSA employees who take this enforcement role on get immediate results.

    • new news–I have talked to ssa employees and the managers about this.. they could care less, and even at my urging, refused to tell the driver of a diesel semi to turn his truck off. I did, and he turned it off. I got the name of the employee, and spoke directly to the manager on duty about it. He said it is unacceptable for ssa employees to not care about this issue– put pressure on the leadership, and it will change. (508) 548-3788 ask for the on duty manager. They are always polite, and say they will look into it– if one person does it, nothing happens– if she gets 20 calls a day, something will change.
      there are plenty of employees there– it is part of their job.

      • Well I can’t speak for others but I can tell you Don that MANY vessel employees care greatly about this issue. There is a lack of enforcement that has developed over the years pertaining to vehicles starting early on the vessels. There simply needs to be a internal discussion instructing all crew members (the salty 40 year vets and the green newbies that know no better) to enforce this serious problem and more importantly a SSA sponsored framework for HOW to do it successfully— like I mentioned in my lengthy prior reply a ways up.

        It baffles me how some people can turn a blind eye to this when all the evidence/science CLEARLY shows that it is shaving years off our lives. I, for one, plan on living a long healthy life and recommend that everyone else riding the ferries do the same. Please voice your concerns to SSA, local representatives and fellow ferry travelers.

  9. How about placing a brightly colored flyer under the windshield wiper of cars on the freight deck while the vessel is underway? Maybe adding a pop-up window before completing an online reservation with a box that must be checked acknowledging the engine starting policy? This could be something that only shows up once a year for people with a profile number, but every time for new users. The email confirmation for an online reservation could have a brightly colored header with bold text. Relying on the purser’s announcement – which many might not be listening to – isn’t the only way to get people’s attention.

  10. I went off island this weekend, and low and behold, an employee named Ron was telling people to turn their cars off— he was cheered by people in their vehicles. I talked to the woods hole manager on my return Sunday night, and told him about this– I also talked to a few deck hands– they explained that they are on station , and cannot always tell people about this, and they are frustrated by it.
    Feel free to confront people they told me. See something, say something– be nice. As Jackie says, be nice, and smile.

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