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Waiting in the line of cars to pick up my sons from school each day, I realized that my children and their classmates were walking out into invisible-yet-harmful fumes created by the dozens of idling vehicles outside their school. It concerned me, and I wanted to do something about it. That was three years ago, and today I'm happy to report an 85% decrease in the amount of carpool-lane idling at my children’s school.

In addition to being a concerned parent, I also help vehicle fleets adopt alternative fuels and implement advanced vehicles and technologies, like idle reduction, through my work with the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Clean Cities program. Professionally, I've come to understand the impacts that greenhouse gas emissions and petroleum consumption in transportation can have on the environment around us. My desire to leverage this knowledge in a way that would support improved air quality in my local community led me to volunteer to help address the idling issue at my children’s school.

When it came to tackling the effort, I wasn't alone. Armed with training and outreach materials supplied by the Clean Air at School’s: Engines Off (CASEO) program sponsored by the American Lung Association in Colorado (ALAC), a dedicated group of parent volunteers, students, and teachers were able to help educate our school community about vehicle idling and the associated health and environmental risks that accompany it. My sons' school, a Jefferson County charter elementary school outside of Denver, Colorado, decided to accept the CASEO challenge for the 2015-2016 academic year as a way to improve the quality of the air in our school zone.

CASEO is an education program that has provided support for more than 40 Denver-area elementary and middle schools in their efforts to reduce vehicle idling. The program aims to increase awareness about the harmful impacts of idling, especially around young children, and to integrate behavior-changing mechanisms into the school culture. The year-long program includes collection and analysis of emissions data in and around school properties, an educational campaign spearheaded by school faculty and students, and student-led interventions including securing parent pledges and in-classroom presentations.

Over the course of 6 months, students, teachers, and parents observed and collected data on the idling habits of vehicles waiting in line to pick up children after school. Once we completed our baseline data observation in December 2015, we shared our findings with the school community to help everyone understand how idling vehicles were negatively impacting air quality at our school. We then implemented an education campaign to encourage drivers to turn off their engines while waiting to pick up students from school. The school community was very receptive to our campaign. What we saw was that on the worst idling day, in December 2015, 81 out of 94 cars sat idling, with engines running for an average of nearly 8 minutes each. By comparison, on the best day in April 2016, only 13 out of 124 cars sat idling, and engines ran for an average of 5.2 minutes.

We learned from an air quality program coordinator at the American Lung Association in Colorado that idle reduction efforts are particularly important in school zones due to the impacts of exhaust on children’s lungs, which continue to develop until the age of 18. Exposure to excess exhaust and smoke can stunt lung growth and contribute to many lung disorders, including asthma. Children are more at risk because of their faster rates of respiration and the amount of time they spend playing outdoors.

Since the idle-reduction educational campaign began, we've seen some big improvements. Many more drivers choose to turn their engines off in the carpool lanes, and this prevents a lot of pollution from getting into the air our children breathe every afternoon as they leave school. This simple choice has resulted in eliminating nearly 6 tons of greenhouse gas emissions from the school zone compared to our baseline. In fact, the school was recognized as an ALAC Clear Skies Award recipient for 2016. 

In addition to averting air quality problems through the idle reduction effort, we're gaining other benefits, too. Parents enjoy the fuel savings realized by simply shutting off the engine while waiting. In addition to greenhouse gas reductions, the program also eliminated more than 460 gasoline gallon equivalents of petroleum consumption. There is less wear on the engine when idling is reduced, and the quieter noise level is an unexpected but very welcome benefit.

Back-to-school time can once again generate those lines of idling cars. Check out the resources in your area that can help promote idling reduction at your school or in your district. The Clean Cities program also provides the IdleBox Toolkit, a free online education and outreach resource, for people who want to start their own idle-reduction campaigns.

It makes the return to school a little more pleasant for us—and a whole lot healthier for our kids.