This is not a story about electric vehicles.
But it is a harsh reminder of the damage we’re doing to our children when we use internal combustion engine cars.
Back in 2018, I’d arrive at my son’s school carpark around 3pm to collect him. Every afternoon I was surrounded by large, diesel-powered SUVs driven by parents who would park, facing the sun, and sit for up to 30 minutes with engines idling and aircon or heating on full blast as they waited for their kids.
Rain, hail or shine, half the parents – I estimated 20-30 cars – would sit in the sealed confines of their vehicle spewing toxic fumes into the very space their kids would soon be standing in to throw their bags in the boot.
Each time a door opened, an invisible cloud of particulates would cause the ‘Baby on Board’ sign to swing slightly as my son’s school mates strapped themselves in next to younger siblings who were likewise getting a lung full of pollutants that had the potential to cause severe lifelong illnesses.
Of all the small things that bug me, this one is at the top. I became what I call an ‘idling crazy’; asking the parents around me to switch their engines off and trying (and failing) to explain that their kids were being affected by fumes. I even rang the school bus operator to ask them to turn off while parked, to be told it was policy for drivers to cut the engine in school grounds; my insistence that they weren’t following company rules was disregarded.
It got me thinking – this was ONE school carpark. How many vehicles were idling their engines in ALL the schools in Australia and New Zealand? How many parents were unthinkingly poisoning their kids each afternoon?
A bit of research found some terrifying facts. Ongoing exposure to transport emissions can lead to a long list of life-threatening illnesses; lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s Disease, to name a few. Studies have shown that students living in high traffic areas can experience reduced intelligence, causing them to perform poorly at school.
Scarily, children closer to an exhaust pipe – toddlers or babies in a pushchair – are breathing in up to 44% more pollutants than their parents on the morning and afternoon school run.
The thing that blew my mind though, was the fact that more Australians and New Zealanders die prematurely from causes linked to transport emissions than in road traffic accidents. However, unlike accidents, a slower death from cancer or respiratory disease doesn’t attract the same level of awareness or campaign funding.
Last year I was lucky enough to meet some other engine idling crazies and we got ourselves organised. We realised the key to awareness is education – no parent would wilfully sit in an idling vehicle if they understood the harm they could do to their children. And who better way to share that message than the children themselves?
Many zoom calls and design iterations later, PhD air quality researcher Clare Walter, Mov3ment e-mobility consultant Nathan Gore-Brown and AEVA President Chris Nash and I launched the student-focused Idle Off Project in early 2020.
We’re really proud of this simple one-paged website that gives secondary students the tools to identify and mitigate the dangers of idling engines in their school grounds. By providing downloadable work sheets, students gain an understanding of the issue, use freely available items to measure air quality and create a communications plan to tell their school community to Idle Off.
The Idle Off Project has now been endorsed by leading health organisations like the Lung Foundation Australia, Asthma Australia and Doctors for the Environment. We’re also delighted that it’s been adopted as the Australian Electric Vehicle Association’s official school program.
We’re still working on getting it into schools, but students are already asking questions and sharing their experiences. What we’re hearing is they’re sick of smelling the fug of particulate in their schools, playgrounds, shopping centres, parks and towns.
Due to popular demand, we’re also working on a community group pack, including posters and a simple Idle Off policy for workplaces, which we’re hoping to launch in early 2021.
Of course, the transition to low-emission transport is gathering pace and ICEs are here for a while yet.
So, my fellow idling crazies and I would love you to share the Idle Off website with the teachers and students in your life, and pass on our welcome to use the project sheets to create an idling message for their school community.
And, if you’re still driving an ICE vehicle, you can have a massive impact on the health of those around you by simply Idling Off.
Emma Sutcliffe is a director of EVUp, a EV charging network operator and e-mobility consulting company. The Idle Off Project is funded by EVUp and managed by the Australian Electric Vehicle Association.