Idling cars near schools could make children sick and should be banned, expert says

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

Leaving the engine running in cars idling outside school drop-off and pick-up zones should be banned, say experts, who believe the toxic exhaust fumes could make children sick.

In 2020, data from the Victorian Integrated Survey of Travel and Activity reveals 64 per cent of Melbourne primary and secondary students travelled to school in vehicles. In 1994, that figure – recorded by the Australian Bureau of Statistics – was 52 per cent, compared to just 20 per cent in 1974.

Across the same period, the number of Melbourne children walking to school has dropped dramatically, with figures from 1974 showing walking to school was part of daily behaviour for around 50 per cent of students, before dropping to 27 per cent in 1994 and then just 17.6 per cent in 2020. The number of children riding bikes to school has also declined in the past 50 years, from six per cent to three per cent.

The result of those lifestyle changes, according to research by HERE Technologies, means traffic near schools almost doubles – on average – during pick-up and drop-off times each morning and afternoon, compared to the rest of the day.

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Although families in many outer suburbs are inconvenienced by a lack of alternative transport choices, the data shows that some of the most congested school areas in Melbourne are located in areas with a wealth of public transport options.

Air pollution is a health concern

Mark Stevenson is professor of urban transport and public health at the University of Melbourne and described air pollution as a consequence of traffic congestion around schools as a “considerable” health concern that is affecting children.

Australian cities, he said, are not set up to accommodate user-friendly modes of active transport, such as walking or cycling, but that much-needed policy change could motivate behavioural change – especially for people within a 10-kilometre radius Melbourne’s CBD.

“We’re in a perfect position to be able to do that and yet, we prioritise the car,” he said. “If you facilitate it and ensure everyone can [park], you’ll never get any change, you’ll never get around congestion.”

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Sydney’s Lane Cove Council is lobbying the NSW government to ban car-idling for a period of longer than two minutes.

And it’s a move that RACV head of policy James Williams said governments should think about.

“Given that there is evidence to suggest that children exposed to exhaust fumes are at risk of developing health complications, anti-idling laws are worth investigating by governments,” he said.

Billy never idles…

Around the world, action to stop the toxic impact of idling cars has led to some creative measures being taken.

In New York City, a recent million-dollar campaign to address the issue across the entire city – not just near schools –  utilised rock star and environmentalist Billy Idol, to tell people ‘Billy never idles and neither should you’.

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It’s now illegal there to idle an engine for longer than three minutes, or more than one minute while adjacent to a school. Dobbing in idlers to the Citizens Air Complaint Program even attracts a monetary reward.

Across many European cities, the creation of ‘school streets’ – roads around schools that are closed to traffic – are becoming a popular solution.

In London, these designated school streets numbered 80 in 2019, then grew to more than 500 by 2022 – and the impact of the initiative was measurable, with research showing nitrogen dioxide in the air was reduced by as much as 23 per cent in those streets during the busy morning drop-off times.

Locally, the initative known as Open Streets began in Victoria in 2021 when Brunswick East Primary School restricted cars from the 200-metre stretch of road near its front gate each Friday.

“It’s really important that school communities and local councils work closely together to work out strategies for good pick-up and drop-off arrangements,” said Parents Victoria chief executive officer Gail McHardy .

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Walking school buses – when supervising adults accompany students as they walk to and from school along a set route – carpools, and kiss-and-go zones are other solutions many schools across Australia actively promote within their own communities.

But with many families across the country sending their children to schools outside their neighbourhood, as well as research from the South Australian government revealing around 58 per cent of parents believed it was unsafe for their children to be around traffic, it’s clear that encouraging more children to walk or ride to school is a multi-faceted issue that requires innovative, sustainable and safe solutions.

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]