Stop idling: turn off your SUV engine at the school gates

You wouldn’t light a cigarette when near a child, so what’s different about car fumes?

You know the ones who do it, the ones who leave the engines on. You might be one yourself.

You see and smell the fumes and you feel them in your lungs at every school gate in Ireland every morning. There he is, in the driving seat, on the mobile with his engine running, while the exhaust pumps out diesel fumes at the level of a child’s face.

The leaves are crisp on the pavements, the sky is an icy blue and the air should be crisp and clear, but it is not. It is toxic.

Children are now encouraged to walk to school for several reasons. It keeps them fit, cuts down on traffic congestion and reduces pollution. But it is so sad to see the little tots in their high-viz jackets, accompanied by younger siblings in push chairs and prams, being exposed to poisonous fumes.


Many of them have dogs on leads. You now see a lot of poodle crossbreeds and non-shed breeds, which often means these kids have asthma. It is heartbreaking that families which have tried so hard to protect their children’s lungs should be forced to put up with needless contamination. You would be offended if a stranger lit a cigarette in the same airspace as a toddler, yet it is somehow socially acceptable to leave an engine on for no reason at all.

Let’s face it. The engine left running at the school gate is a needless hazard. It does nobody any good and would not be tolerated in many countries with a much colder climate than ours. I don’t know why anyone does it; they must have money to burn. Some people leave the keys in the car with the engine running and go into the school. Sometimes you will pass a line of school buses, each containing a solitary driver, pumping a grey cloud of toxic waste into the still autumn air, as they wait for the school bell to ring.

Perhaps they are warming up their coaches and cars, but it is rarely cold enough to justify that in Ireland. The driver could put on a coat, or get out and walk about.

What do these fumes do to our children? The dangers are clear and well researched.The fumes coming from a car contain dangerous pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter. These irritate the throat and lungs, leading to respiratory problems, even in otherwise healthy children.

Long-term exposure has been linked to worsening of conditions such as asthma. Diesel emissions have even been linked to an increased risk of lung cancer.

Research has also shown that air pollution levels increase at lower heights, potentially exposing children to greater concentrations than adults. So the kids at the school gate enduring the fumes from SUVs are being exposed to more pollution than the drivers are.

Some drivers mistakenly believe that stopping a car engine, only to restart it a minute or two later, causes more pollution than idling. This is a fallacy. If you are likely to sit still for more than 10 seconds you should turn your engine off.

GPs in Ireland are required to register children who we feel have asthma, which shows some commitment on the part of the Government. Logically, if Ireland is to treat asthma seriously we should introduce measures to reduce the exposure of these children to air pollution.

The UK, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore all have engine idling time limits. Thirty-one states in the US have regulations about engine idling, and many areas there have active campaigns promoting “No Idling”.

The British Lung Foundation launched an initiative last autumn called #DropOffSwitchOff to encourage parents and drivers of school buses to switch off at the school gates. They say that "no one should be forced to inhale dirty air, especially not those in our society who contribute least to its creation. Children at school should be absorbing knowledge, not carcinogenic chemicals."

As I walk my daughter Laura to school on these misty autumn mornings I fervently wish that the HSE, the Irish College of General Practice, paediatricians, respiratory consultants and parents’ groups would get together and start a similar initiative to #DropOffSwitchOff.

The hope would be that engine idling will some day be seen as the antisocial behaviour that it is.

So when you drop off or collect your child this week please turn that key, switch off that engine and help clean up the air that we and our children breathe.

Pat Harrold is a GP based in Nenagh, Co Tipperary