Engine Idling on the School Run | What is the Law?

Keywords: engine idling – vehicle emissions – Highway Code – criminal offences.


When I drop my kids off or collect them from school, there are usually drivers parked with their engines running. I often ask them to turn off their engines to reduce air pollution. Some parents object, but the law is clear: it’s a criminal offence to keep your engine running while parked.

1. Introduction

I usually walk my kids to and from school. Sometimes I drop them off or collect them by car when I’d be late for work or late picking them up. When I park outside the school, I turn the engine off to reduce air pollution around the school. The evidence that emissions from cars are bad for kids is beyond doubt. Some people refuse to turn their engines off though.

2. Diesel emissions and child health

Diesel emissions are particularly harmful to children. Exposure to nitrogen oxides and particulates leads to worse lung function and more asthma. And the emerging evidence links air pollution to reduced IQ and mental ability. There is a recent review in the British Medical Journal Paediatrics Open on diesel, children and respiratory disease which explains the evidence.

And the National Institute for Health and and Clinical Excellence (NICE) publishes advice on ‘no vehicle idling’ zones outside schools and hospitals.

If I see someone parked with their engine running outside the school, I generally ask them – politely – to turn it off to reduce the pollution in and around the school. The reactions I get are mixed. They range from ‘Sorry mate, of course I’ll turn it off’ to ‘Fuck off, you wanker. Who the fuck do you think you are?’ The answer to this question is ‘Someone who is concerned about the health of your and my children and I’m not sure why that makes me a wanker.’

About two-thirds of drivers turn their engines off, but the other third – weirdly – refuse. Sometimes people give a reason why they cannot turn the engine off, usually relating to the weather. In winter, it is too cold not to have the engine running. And, in summer, it is too hot not to have the air-con on. There then follows a discussion about what is more important: personal comfort or child health. Sometimes I win, but mostly I lose with the third who refuse.

What’s odd is that it is people in big expensive cars – BMWs, Mercedes, Audis, Range Rovers etc – who refuse to turn their engines off. I’m not sure why this is. Does driving an expensive car correlate with not caring about other people? Do people who drive expensive cars generally not like being asked to do something? Are they a stupid? Who knows.

What is clear is that it’s a criminal offence to keep your engine running when parked.

3. The Law

The Highway Code is issued under section 38 of the Road Traffic Act 1988. The Code applies to all road users: pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists, horse riders and drivers. Road users are supposed to be aware of the Code and be considerate towards each other.

Rule 123 of the Highway Code says:

The Driver and the Environment. You MUST NOT leave a parked vehicle unattended with the engine running or leave a vehicle engine running unnecessarily while that vehicle is stationary on a public road. Generally, if the vehicle is stationary and is likely to remain so for more than a couple of minutes, you should apply the parking brake and switch off the engine to reduce emissions and noise pollution. However it is permissible to leave the engine running if the vehicle is stationary in traffic or for diagnosing faults.

The use of the words ‘MUST NOT‘ are used in the Code to show that the words are a legal requirement.

The actual law is contained in the Road Vehicle (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986. These regulations set out how vehicles are to be constructed and used. Regulation 98 ‘Stopping of engine when stationary’ did not originally require the engine to be turned off prevent exhaust emissions. But it was amended in 1998 by regulation 3 of the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) (Amendment) Regulations 1998 to include the words ‘exhaust emissions’.

What regulation 98 now says is

98.—(1) Save as provided in paragraph (2), the driver of a vehicle shall, when the vehicle is stationary, stop the action of any machinery attached to or forming part of the vehicle so far as may be necessary for the prevention of noise or of exhaust emissions.
(2) The provisions of paragraph (1) do not apply—

(a) when the vehicle is stationary owing to the necessities of traffic;
(b) so as to prevent the examination or working of the machinery where the examination is necessitated by any failure or derangement of the machinery or where the machinery is required to be worked for a purpose other than driving the vehicle; or
(c) in respect of a vehicle propelled by gas produced in plant carried on the vehicle, to such plant.

A car’s engine is machinery forming part of the vehicle and the driver is therefore required to stop the engine when stationary so far as may be necessary for the prevention of noise and exhaust emissions. If the engine does not produce any noise or any emissions, then it is not necessary to stop it. But: since petrol and diesel engines do produce exhaust emissions, it is necessary to turn them off to prevent emissions.

There are sensible exceptions to having to turn the engine off: when the car is in traffic; where the car is being examined; or where running the engine is required for a purpose other than driving. I expect the latter relates to keeping the engines of – say – fire engines and cranes running. It seems clear the exceptions cannot apply to people stationary outside a school waiting to drop off or collect their kids.

Under section 42 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, it is a criminal offence to breach regulation 98 of the Construction and Use Regulations. The penalty is specified in Schedule 2 to the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988. The penalty is a fine up to level 4 on the standard scale if committed in respect of a goods vehicle or a vehicle adapted to carry more than eight passengers. And a fine up to level 3 on the standard scale in any other case.

Level 4 is a fine up to £2,500 and level 3 a fine up to £1,000 – see section 37 of the Criminal Justice Act 1982.

4. Conclusion

My conclusion is: turn your engine off because it’s bad for your and my children’s health. And keeping your engine running is against the law. Sometimes, though, I seem to be fighting a losing battle.