The Dangers of Leaving a Child Alone in a Vehicle
Leaving a child alone in a car unattended can have serious consequences, not only for the child but also for the parent, guardian or babysitter who leaves them there. For example, if you leave a child alone in the car while you run into a store for just "two shakes of a lamb's tail," your child could face life-threatening temperatures, accidental bodily injury or kidnapping. The parent or guardian could even be charged with a misdemeanor or a jail-worthy criminal offense, depending on the case and state laws regarding child endangerment.
In short, children should never be left alone in a car, even for 60 seconds. This article looks at the dangerous conditions and situations that every responsible adult should be aware of.
Remembering Kaitlyn Russell
On a very hot day in August 2000, a babysitter left six-month-old Kaitlyn Russell in a car for at least two hours in Corona, Calif. By the time Kaitlyn arrived at a Riverside County hospital, her body temperature was 107 degrees. She soon died from hyperthermia that same day.
In 2001, California Gov. Gray Davis signed into law Senate Bill 255, also known as Kaitlyn's Law, which makes it illegal for a child to be left unattended in a motor vehicle in the state of California. The case of Kaitlyn Russell raised nationwide awareness about the dangers of leaving a child in the car alone. Currently, 19 states have laws that make it illegal to leave a child unattended in a vehicle.
The Risk of Heat
Any vehicle can act as a greenhouse, trapping in heat and causing the mercury to rise as much as 30 degrees in a half hour or less. Indeed, body temperatures can rise to a dangerous level even when the windows are cracked on a temperate or cloudy day. Even an air-conditioner is not a defense. A child's body temperature rises much, much faster than an adult's, leaving kids vulnerable to heat stroke, brain damage or death.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 896 children have died in a hot car since 1998. Interestingly, 53% of hot-car fatalities happen because someone forgot the child was still in the car. Furtherer, about 25% of hot-car fatalities occur because the child somehow managed to get into an unattended vehicle, not because a parent left them inside, according to the NHTSA.
The Danger of Heat Stroke
"Nearly 900 children died of heatstroke since 1998, because they were left or became trapped in a hot car," according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In fact, a child is much more vulnerable to heatstroke than an adult. It is important to remember that leaving a child in the car is dangerous, but that danger is entirely avoidable. Here are the facts, according to the NHTSA:
A child's body temperature rises three to five times faster than an adult's. When a child is left in a hot vehicle, that child's temperature can rise quickly, and they could die within minutes.
Heatstroke begins when the core body temp reaches about 104 degrees.
A child can die when their body temp reaches 107 degrees.
In 2020, 25 children died of vehicular heatstroke.
In 2018 and 2019, NoHeatstroke.org recorded an all-time-high number of hot car-deaths—53 children died each year—the most in at least 20 years, according to the organization.
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Don't start up the engine or let the vehicle idle in an enclosed space, especially if your child is alone in the car. In fact, it is dangerous to let your car idle in the garage even if the garage door is open!
Colorless and odorless, carbon monoxide (CO) can poison the brain, heart and other organs by preventing the body from processing oxygen normally. Children are at a higher risk for CO poisoning than adults because they breathe faster than adults; since children breathe faster, they can breathe in more CO.
Even if you're just running back into the house with the intent to grab some things you forgot you should never leave your tot in the car with the engine running in the garage, even if they are sleeping peacefully in their car seat.
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Symptoms:
An irregular or fast heartbeat.
Headaches or vomiting
Difficulty breathing or is breathing faster than usual.
Feeling weak, trouble moving or severe muscle pain
Trapped in the Trunk
According to the Trunk Releases Urgently Needed Coalition (TRUNC), 37 children age 14 and younger have died by trunk entrapment since 1970. At least 19 children, all six years old or younger, died from unintentional trunk entrapment in the U.S. from July 1987 to August 1998. Further, the average age of children who have died in unintentional trunk entrapment incidents is 4 years old. Research indicates that youngsters are more likely to die when trapped unintentionally than intentionally.
Hyperthermia (heat stroke) combined with asphyxiation are the most common causes of death associated with unintentional trunk entrapment deaths. Cars parked in direct sunlight can reach internal temperatures of 131˚F to 172˚F, even after only 15 minutes in the sun. Youngsters are more sensitive to heat than older youths and adults and are at greater danger for heat stroke. The combination of high temperature, humidity and poor ventilation all contribute to the extreme danger of car trunks.
The Dangers of Injury in a Car
Unattended tots in a car can get injured or worse. Restless, curious or bored, kids can hurt themselves by jumping around, accidentally falling out of a parked car or playing with the power windows. In fact, power windows have killed or injured thousands of children. An infant can be injured or suffocated with just 22 pounds of force, and power windows can exert up to 80 pounds of force.
Without supervision, a child can choke on something or be strangled by a seatbelt. Whether the car's engine is idling or turned off, a child can accidentally set the car in motion, causing the vehicle to crash into a stationary or moving object. Of course, the car could catch on fire with your child inside.
Child Abduction from a Motor Vehicle
The risk of your child getting kidnapped increases when you leave them alone in your car. In 2011 alone, 63 children were abducted from vehicles, according to the U.S. Dept. of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Remember, children are most vulnerable when they are alone.
If you leave an older child, or a teen, in the car while picking up an order or the dry cleaning, make sure that they are able to operate a cell phone and to contact you right away if they notice anyone suspicious near the vehicle. While an older child is better able to take measures against rising body temperatures, they are still vulnerable to abductions.
Carjacking a Motor Vehicle with a Child Inside
On average, about 700,000 cars are stolen a year, and in many cases a thief may steal a car without even knowing an infant or young person is in the backseat.
The non-profit national advocacy organization KidsAndCars.org documented that, in 2019, more than 200 kids were in a vehicle at the time the vehicle was stolen. This category of danger is often overlooked, so be aware of your environment, be aware of anyone acting suspiciously and call the police as soon as you're aware that a carjacking crime has been committed.
The Risk of Prosecution
Once again, the law in every state is different. If you leave a child unattended in a car, you could face vastly different penalties, depending on the category of the offense, the level of danger or harm and how well your lawyer can defend you. In short, parents can face prosecution under child endangerment or neglect laws. New Jersey law and Louisiana law are very different, but each serves as a good example of the type of prosecution one could face:
In New Jersey, the responsible person could be charged as a petty disorderly person and be subject to a fine of not less than $500, a jail term not exceeding 30 days or both.
In Louisiana, the responsible person could be fined up to $500, imprisoned for up to six months or both. For each subsequent offense, the responsible person could be imprisoned for up to two years, "with or without hard labor," and fined up to $2,000 or both.
If you are charged with child endangerment, you should call the law offices of your lawyer. In some states, you'll be facing stiff penalties and possible jail time, no matter your intent.
At What Age Can Kids Be Left Alone in the Car?
There is no federal law that dictates how old a child has to be before they can be left alone in the car. In fact, every state has its own laws. In the following states, it's perfectly fine to leave your child alone in a vehicle if they are the age indicated or older:
11 years or older: Missouri
15 years or older: New Jersey
16 years or older: Washington
Since each state has its own regulations regarding suitable ages, suitable guardians, time spans and penalty hierarchies, you should check out your state's Department of Motor Vehicles website for the best, most up-to-date information.
If a child has a disability, the law might treat a case very differently. While it might be safe to leave a child in a vehicle in one jurisdiction, it may be a criminal offense to do the same in another jurisdiction.
What Should I Do If I See a Kid Alone in a Car?
If you see a child alone in a car, you should endeavor to find the parents. If you can't find the adult responsible, you should call law enforcement or phone 9-1-1. While no normal person wants to be a nosy busybody who causes a family pain and suffering, it's up to all of us to keep children safe and free from harm, whether in a city street or on a country road. Someone like you can make all the difference, so don't be afraid to phone law enforcement, especially if the child's well-being seems to be in crisis.
Prevention Is the Best Defense
A child should never be left alone in a vehicle unattended, period. Having reviewed all the risk factors in this article, anyone would agree. Here is a list of tips and recommendations to avoid harm, injury or worse.
Before you locking up your car and walking away, make it a habit to check your entire car.
Place your purse or briefcase in the back seat or a stuffed animal in the front seat as a reminder.
Always store your car keys out of a child's reach.
Always lock your car doors and trunk so a child can't sneak in unnoticed.
Teach your kids that a car is not a playground.
Role-play with your kids about how to deal with strangers.
Always keep your car's fold-down back seats closed so kids cannot access the trunk.
Use the drive-through, pick-up or delivery options at grocery stores, restaurants, banks and other businesses.