Cars Don't Belong Near Schools

CC BY 2.0. Tom Leonard -- A packed school parking lot

Traffic fumes are poisoning our children, and yet busy parents seem not to realize or care. This shouldn't be allowed.

Traffic fumes are seriously damaging to children. British writer George Monbiot has compiled a list of the ways in which air pollution affects children, from damaging lung growth and brain development to increasing risk of allergies, asthma, and heart disease. And yet, schools continue to be highly polluted areas because of the number of cars allowed to drop off and pick up kids.

This is a major point of contention for Monbiot, who rides his daughter to school on a tagalong bicycle, a mile and a half each way. He sees parents driving as little as 100 meters (328 feet), from one end of a street to the other, to drop their kids off. He writes, "By the time they’ve found a place to park, they could have walked back and forth three times." Not to mention that it makes the streets more dangerous for little walkers.

In an article for the Guardian titled "Dirty air is killing our children. Why does the government let this happen?", Monbiot calls for regulation and the implementation of parking bans around schools during drop-off and pickup times. Such efforts have been successful in parts of Edinburgh.

"Technologies such as number plate recognition cameras and rising bollards (both of which allow residents and drivers with a disability card to pass while excluding others) can make enforcement automatic."

Regulation could resolve the social tensions that escalate when the sovereignty of cars is challenged. Aggressive parents pick fights, citing their right to deliver a child to school as they please and their need to adhere to a tight schedule, though it's probably about their desire to show off a shiny new vehicle, too:

"I have begun to realise that getting as close to the school gates as possible is not just about minimising the need to walk. It’s also about being seen in your new car. The bigger it is, the greater the incentive to be seen."

While reading Monbiot's call for regulation, I couldn't help but wonder if he's pointing a finger in the wrong direction. After all, this problem lies with the parents, who are bizarrely willing to poison their children's lungs, and all the children around them, by refusing to change their habits. Indeed, when I walk my kids to school daily and enter the stinky, smelly cloud of fumes as I approach the building (sometimes with idling minivans spewing emissions right into my baby's face at stroller-level), I want to scream, "What's wrong with you parents? How can you not see how bad this is?"

But then I saw Monbiot's response to a commenter who had the same thoughts as I:

"Many of the comments here propose that whether or not we poison other people should be a matter of personal choice. Think about that for a moment."

He's right. Just because I go to the effort of walking my children to school daily does not protect them from the irresponsible and damaging actions of other parents, which is why regulations are needed. Rules can enforce what I cannot in the moment.

I live in a town where school buses (which have their own slew of environmental issues) are provided for all kids who live outside of what's deemed a sensible walking distance. So the cars I see at school drop-off and pick-up times shouldn't even be there, in theory. They're not late and haven't missed the bus; they just don't feel like walking. And so my children's health pays the price.

I do think, however, that there is a great lack of understanding on the part of parents as to how bad the air pollution problem is. I doubt most of my friends have ever really stopped to think about what leaving their enormous truck or SUV to idle for five minutes actually does; it's common practice in small-town Ontario. Traffic fumes are invisible -- except in the winter, when the poisonous clouds billow out the tailpipes and make everyone turn away in disgust -- which makes them easy to forget. I don't know how it is in the UK, but here in Canada I've never seen information about air pollution posted near schools, nor much in the way of walk-to-school campaigns.

Related to this problem is parents' unwillingness to give their children any sense of independence. They drive because they're too afraid to let their child walk alone. This is a whole other issue in itself that needs to be addressed, but if more children walked together, it wouldn't seem like such a daunting assignment.

One commenter put the issue into perspective well:

"If a new disease surfaced that was killing as many people as air pollution AND we could cure it, or at the very least greatly reduce the death toll, we'd start treating the problem immediately."

We need a combination of efforts -- education campaigns within schools to teach kids and parents about WHY it's bad to drive to school, as well as regulations to crack down and give our children the clean(er) air they deserve.