Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News
A bus idles as it waits for students after school at Backman Elementary School in Salt Lake. A new program is aimed at cutting the practice to reduce pollution.

As you gaze into the gunk blanketing Wasatch Front valleys, take heart: Schools are working to help clean it up — with a simple turn of a key.

Washington, Salt Lake City and Cache school districts are piloting a program, expected to go national next year, to train school bus drivers to kill the engines on idle buses. Students and parents at Rowland Hall-St. Mark's School and Emerson Elementary in Salt Lake City and Morningside Elementary in Granite School District are urging parents to do the same when picking up their kids at the end of the day.

Rowland Hall-St. Mark's parent Sarah Uram says it's as important to student safety as buckling a seat belt.

"Idling is really unnecessary and it's a huge source of pollution and causes a lot of distress for kids with respiratory problems, even for healthy kids," said Uram, a member of Rowland Hall's sustainability committee. "It's a pretty easy thing just to turn your car off."

Vehicles contribute to nearly two-thirds of air pollutants in Utah, Utah Clean Cities director Robin Erickson said. Idling, be it at the drive-through or waiting to load passengers, unnecessarily adds to it.

Consider: If every school bus driver in the country each day killed the engine one minute on trips to school, and one minute in the afternoon pickup, annual emissions would drop by 319 tons of carbon monoxide, 185 tons of nitrogen dioxide and 8.3 tons of small particulate matter, Erickson said. The action also would save 150,000 gallons of fuel and reduce bus maintenance costs by the equivalent of 21 million road miles every year.

State transportation supervisor Murrell Martin wants to do even better than that. He hopes to curtail school bus idling five minutes a day.

The three Utah school districts, partnering with three more in Nevada and Utah Clean Cities, are using a $100,000 grant to develop anti-idling training for bus drivers, a project that also includes the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Energy Foundation, Erickson said. Curriculum premiered in Washington School District last November, in Salt Lake City last month, and is coming soon to Cache school bus drivers. Emissions data will be gathered, and the lessons are expected to become part of the national school bus driver curriculum next year.

Basically, bus drivers could kill the engine during student loading, but not necessarily at stop signs, railroad crossings or red lights, Erickson said.

Bus emissions have been a problem in Utah. The Beehive State received poor rankings in the School Bus Pollution Report Card 2006, researched by the Union of Concerned Scientists and endorsed by the American Lung Association, for hazardous emissions in school bus fleets. The report said the average Utah school bus releases 19.6 pounds of soot into the air each year — 150 percent more pollution per mile than a tractor-trailer truck.

Districts have worked to curb pollution. Jordan District has 44 natural gas buses — about 15 percent of its fleet — Davis is using a retrofits grant to reduce bus emissions, and every new school bus must meet EPA standards for clean emissions.

But cutting idling also can help — and not just on buses.

Moms and dads are being targeted, too, by their own kids.

Morningside and Emerson elementary students have been timing cars to see how long they idle to raise awareness as part of asking parents to kill the engine while they wait.

Morningside's project started two years ago, when students passed out "Stop, Turn Off and Save" stickers and even wrote a no-idling song, sixth-grade teacher Patti White said. Now, students have sent home fliers and are designing a logo for a parking lot kill-the-engine banner.

Rowland Hall developed a campus no-idling policy about 18 months ago, head of school Alan Sparrow said. Teams there are renewing an awareness campaign, with "Curb Your Carbon" rearview mirror tags — a reminder to turn off cars after 10 seconds of idling. The group Utah Moms for Clean Air also has gotten involved in such efforts.

"I think everyone recognizes that the particulates in the air are particularly bad for children," Sparrow said. "You're creating a mini version of that in front of the school when you have 40 or 50 cars lined up, just running."

And when they're not running, it's an obvious difference.

Two weeks into its latest campaign, Morningside parking lot carbon monoxide emissions were cut in half, sixth-grader Danielle Parker said.

"We're liking that."

Those at Coral Cliffs Elementary in St. George let their noses tell the difference.

"It doesn't stink as bad when you go outside," said secretary Julie Bishop. "It's been nice."