A group of “concerned health professionals, academics and scientists” has called on the Victorian government to introduce anti-idling laws for fossil fuelled cars – starting with school drop-off zones – as one of the easiest and most effective first steps to minimise the environmental and health fall-out from vehicle exhaust.
In a submission to a state parliamentary inquiry into the health impacts of air pollution, a report signed off by six authors across the University of Melbourne, University of Queensland and the Royal Melbourne Hospital compares leaving a car engine running unnecessarily to lighting up a cigarette next to a non-smoker.
It says this practice, like smoking, should be banned.
Idling – running a vehicle’s internal combustion engine while the vehicle is stationary, or even parked – is something all ICE drivers are, or have been guilty of, probably without giving it a second thought.
Increasingly, however, the practice is viewed as inefficient and unnecessary, including by vehicle makers themselves, with most new car models equipped with a function to switch the engine off automatically when it comes to a full stand-still.
Far worse than being inefficient, idling is also a major and preventable health risk – most particularly to children, with schools and childcare centres swamped by the fumes of hundreds of exhausts twice a day, at drop-off and pick up.
“Children are disproportionately impacted by air pollution and merit particular attention,” says the submission, signed off by six authors from the University of Melbourne, University of Queensland and the Royal Melbourne Hospital.
“Exposing children to vehicle emissions contributes to our already very high prevalence of asthma and allergies along with leading to a host of other lifelong health complications,” the paper continues – and yet “much of it is avoidable.”
As the submission notes, there is a wealth of international research and policy advice that could be adapted to the Australian context to cut the amount of vehicle exhaust to which our children are exposed. Anti-idling regulations sit high up near the top.
The authors point to evidence-based policy recommendations put forward in the UK and the US, many of which have gone on to be implemented, resulting in measurable health improvements in children.
In Southern California, the submission notes, a suite of mitigation strategies – including anti-idling legislation – adopted to reduce school children’s exposure to roadside pollution resulted in declining pollution levels over the subsequent two decades which in turn were associated with the development of larger lungs in children.
London, too, has tackled nitrogen dioxide levels with low emission zones where diesel vehicles are banned, increased cycling infrastructure, anti–idling policies, upgrading to electric buses and – finally – banning combustion vehicles as of 2030. Australia, meanwhile, is doing practically none of the above.
“Reducing children’s exposure to vehicle exhaust should be a high priority for Australian policy-makers looking to improve health outcomes, yet in sharp contrast to Europe, we are increasing our intake of diesel vehicles, our fuel standards are among the worst in the world and we continue to follow urban planning policies that deliberately place childcare centres and schools on major roads,” the submission says.
This needs to change, of course, and while the country sits in the slow lane on the road to electric vehicle uptake, the authors recommend starting with the creation of “clean air zones” around schools, through anti-idling policies, encouragement of active transport, staggered drop offs, and buffer zones where possible.
“Of all the strategies, [anti-idling] is the easiest to implement and perhaps the simplest way to gain the impetus required to achieve the rest of the recommendations,” the authors add.
“If the public were made aware that leaving their engine running was tantamount to smoking a cigarette around a non-smoker, it is easy to envisage behaviours and attitudes rapidly changing.
“Raising awareness is imperative to the success of any of the mitigation strategies that require behavioural change.”