A “Three-Legged Stool” Approach to Reducing Vehicle Emissions to Protect Maryland’s Most Vulnerable Populations

Resources and Tools

by Kristen Humphrey, MLA, Infrastructure and Development Planner, with Tim Shepherd, Division Chief, Mobile Sources Control Program, MDE

Few of us stop to think about how much time we spend in the car simply waiting. Certainly, we all know the frustration of being stopped in traffic due to construction or an accident on our daily commute to and from work, but what about all the other times we are just sitting, engines idling? We might sit at the drive-through of a fast food restaurant or bank, waiting to pay a toll, or the gridlock following a large sporting event.

What about our children’s school pick-up lane? How often have parents and grandparents felt like they spend half their lives waiting in those interminable lines and what about the countless school buses waiting, too? We do it without thinking: sit for five, 10, maybe as much as 30 minutes waiting to collect our young children from school, summer camp, sports practice, and music lessons as much as twice a day, five to six days per week. Perhaps this task is somewhat less odious than years past with the advent of cell phones – it’s easier than ever to pass the time, catching up on texts, emails, social media posts or funny cat videos – but what are the environmental and public health ramifications of all the collective hours spent idling our engines?

Earlier this year, the Maryland Departments of Environment (MDE) and Education (MSDE) announced a new program, Idle Free Maryland, to reduce vehicular emissions in school arrival and departure areas as well as other areas where vehicles often idle for long periods of time, such as public rest stops and truck stops. The program focuses on a “three-legged stool” approach by working, first, with schools across the state (both public and private); second, the Maryland Motor Truck Association; and third, commercial or public transportation fleets. Additionally, through outreach and education of the general public, the program also seeks to create a new level of awareness, ultimately changing driving habits of Marylanders.

MDE’s Idle Reduction Fact Sheet describes the effects on public health from exposure to vehicle emissions:

  • Car exhaust contains air pollutants that can cause cancer, respiratory issues, reproductive effects, birth defects, and other serious illnesses.
  • Exposure to vehicle exhaust increases the risk of death from heart and lung disease.
  • Just one minute of idling produces more carbon monoxide than three packs of cigarettes.

Schools are a critical component of the program because children are far more susceptible to the negative health effects of air pollution than adults. According to a press release announcing the development of Idle Free Maryland, “MDE monitoring at schools has shown elevated levels of air toxins during the afternoon hours coinciding with school dismissal. Reduced vehicle and school bus idling would provide Maryland with significant reductions in carbon dioxide, particulate matter, and nitrogen oxide pollution, while improving the health of all Maryland citizens.” Additionally, the negative health effects of vehicle emissions are amplified when it comes to children:

  • Children breathe 50 percent more air per pound than adults.  Because of their developing lungs and higher breathing rates, air pollution is especially dangerous to children.
  • Car exhaust increases the symptoms of asthma—the most common chronic illness in children, and the cause of most school absences.

This matters even more when we consider how many more children are now exposed to idling vehicles in places like schools. According to the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center and the National Center for Safe Routes to School, roughly three to four times as many students now travel to school via car than four to five decades ago.

The result of this trend is that millions more school-aged children are arriving to school by auto or bus each day with a corresponding increase in the number of vehicles idling outside. In turn, and most significantly, more children are waiting in areas adjacent to these idling vehicles, whether in parent or bus pick-up areas, for an increased number of minutes each day.   

The impacts on the environment are no less dramatic and concerning. Idle Free Maryland has done an outstanding job of creating a toolkit targeting each of their three main audiences with informative and eye-catching materials highlighting some of the most significant consequences of engine idling. Materials range from fact sheets to posters and PowerPoint presentations to signs and decals. The toolkits are available to download free of charge on MDE’s website.

To date, Idle free Maryland has recruited more than 60 Maryland schools and “green centers” (arboreta, nature centers, etc.) to participate in the program. Members pledge to “improve air and water quality in Maryland by working to reduce unnecessary idling in the state” and agree to a variety of measures including: talking about engine idling with others; creating an idle reduction policy; and encouraging participation within the school or organization. Additionally, schools which make the pledge receive signage to display acknowledging their commitment and reminding parents and visitors to reduce idling on their campuses.

With more than 1,400 public schools alone throughout the state, there remain many more opportunities for parents, teachers, and students to get involved in improving air quality across Maryland.

To see which schools and groups are participating or to get your school, transportation fleet, or other organization involved, visit the Idle Free Maryland website or for more information, contact Tim Shepherd, Division Chief, Mobile Sources Control Program, MDE at tim.shepherd@maryland.gov or 410-537-3236.

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