A Florida man has been charged with manslaughter after leaving his 2-year-old daughter in a hot car while he went inside and took a five-hour nap. Since 12 children already have died this year under similar circumstances, this case is raising awareness over the dangers and laws concerning kids dying from heatstroke when trapped in vehicles. With the hottest summer months approaching, here is what you need to remember to have a safe summer with kids.
Since 1998, an average of 38 children have died per year from heatstroke when left in hot cars, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. According to a San Francisco State University study conducted from 1998 to 2009, more than half of car-related heatstroke fatalities involved children 2 and under, since kids 4 and under overheat five times more quickly than adults. About half of those deaths were the result of caregivers reportedly forgetting about kids in the car, a third was the result of kids playing in an unattended car and almost 20 percent was the result of parents intentionally leaving a child in the car.
State laws: What happens if I leave my kid in the car?
Leaving kids alone in a car is dangerous, whether or not the engine or the air conditioning is running, and leaving kids in the car with the keys in the ignition is illegal in many states. While some state laws permit leaving an unattended child in a vehicle for up to 15 minutes, other states have ruled that leaving for more than five minutes constitutes a violation.
Shockingly, only 19 states have laws specifically making it illegal to leave a child unattended in a vehicle, according to Kids and Cars, a car safety advocacy group. While some states like Montana and Kentucky have laws that apply to fatalities, several other states only have proposed laws or no applicable laws whatsoever, although general child endangerment laws likely apply.
While age limits vary from state to state, typically, young children must be supervised by someone older in a vehicle parked in a public place if there are dangerous conditions or if the engine is running. Violation is generally a misdemeanor charge with a $50 to $500 fine. Specific laws and consequences vary greatly, however, so be sure to check each state’s individual laws for clarification. Nevada state law, for example, specifies that the law regarding unattended children in motor vehicles does not apply in cases of children accidentally locked in cars. Here are a few other examples:
California: No leaving kids 6 or younger in cars without the supervision of someone 12 or older, when the keys are in the ignition, when the engine is running, or when conditions like hot temperatures risk the child’s health or safety. Violating the law is punishable with a fine of $100 and mandatory participation in a community education program that includes education on the dangers of leaving kids alone in cars.
Illinois: Leaving a child under 6 in a car without a supervisor 14 or older, for more than 10 minutes, is a class A misdemeanor. A second offense is a class 3 felony.
Missouri: Penalties apply only to those leaving kids in cars if the child, unattended by someone 14 or older, causes an accident.
Florida: Leaving a kid under 6 in the car for over 15 minutes is a second-degree misdemeanor. Leaving a child in the car under dangerous circumstances or with the engine running constitutes a “noncriminal traffic infraction” and is accompanied by a fine of $50 to $500. If the child is seriously injured as a result of the neglect, it is considered a third-degree felony.
Hawaii: If kids under 9 are left in a car for five minutes without someone over 12 to supervise them, they can be removed from the car if rescue personnel determine there is a danger. If the adult in charge cannot be located within a reasonable amount of time, the police can take custody of the child without a warrant or consent from the family.
Washington: It is a misdemeanor to leave kids under 16 in a running vehicle, with a second offense resulting in revocation of the vehicle operator’s license.
Avoiding tragedy: Don’t leave kids in cars
Do not leave kids in the car, not even for a few minutes, no matter what the weather is, and especially not with keys inside and the engine running. In addition, it is important to note that rolling windows down will not lower the car’s temperature significantly.
More often than not, according to Kids and Cars, child fatalities resulting from being left in cars happen by accident when caregivers experience a change in their daily routine and forget about sleeping children in the car. Experts recommend keeping briefcases, iPads, or other such “routine” items in the back seat so caregivers remember to get children out of the car.
If you have left a child in your car and the police contact you about it, contact a criminal defense attorney before you talk. Reassuring the officer by explaining the specific circumstances of the situation could actually get you in more trouble down the line.
Finally, if you see a child left alone in a car, call 911 immediately.