Leaving a Child Unattended in a Vehicle
Last updated Friday, September 22nd, 2023
The heartbreaking trend of kids left unattended in vehicles can be changed and calls for adults to:
- Understand the consequences of unattended kids in cars
- Connect with the reasons why a child gets left in a car
- Follow existing laws
- Press for increased safety legislation
- Know what to do when you see a child in danger
- Put essential new practices in place
- Incorporate new safety technologies
Parents, grandparents, babysitters and child care providers all share the gargantuan responsibility of protecting our little ones. The critical importance of discussing and adopting a commonsense transportation game plan with all those who care for kids cannot be skipped. Despite our best efforts, each year about 39 kids die from heatstroke as a result of being left inside an unattended vehicle. In 2019 it happened 52 times.1 Over 50 percent of those deaths are because those kids were forgotten by a caregiver who lost track of reality.
Leaving Kids in the Car – A Very Real Heatstroke Danger
Children are of course very vulnerable to harm in cars. Heatstroke is a particularly dangerous threat because the temperature of a vehicle can rise up to 20 degrees in about 10 minutes. Even on a day when it’s a mild 60 degrees out, the inside of a car can skyrocket to 110 degrees. In most circumstances, a child can die when their body temperature reaches 107 degrees.2 Keep in mind that kids under the age of five are much more likely to develop heatstroke and that when it occurs, it is a life-threatening emergency that requires immediate attention.
Kids Left in The Car – How Does It Happen?
There are three main ways that children are most vulnerable to being left in a hot car. While criminal actions do make up a small number of cases, most of these tragedies fall into the category of being completely preventable.
“The most dangerous mistake a parent can make is to think leaving a child alone in their car could never happen to them.”3
– Sgt. Josh Lawson, Kentucky State Police Spokesman[
Top Reason: Children Are Forgotten By A Caregiver
In a 22-year media review of child heatstroke deaths in cars, the results of 849 occurrences showed that 460 children (54.2%) were forgotten by someone who was supposed to be caring for them.4 Many instances involve a parent en route to a daycare dropoff, but instead loses track of reality and goes to work instead, forgetting the quiet or sleeping child in the backseat of the car.
That’s a brutal reality. How could that possibly happen?
“Memory is a machine and it is not flawless,” says David Diamond, professor of molecular physiology at the University of South Florida. Diamond focuses on the notable shortcomings of the brain and explains that “the quality of prior parental care seems to be irrelevant. The important factors that keep showing up involve a combination of stress, emotion, lack of sleep and change in routine.”5 Add to that all too common errors of miscommunication between parents, grandparents and babysitters, it’s clear new strategies for safety become essential.
Children Get Into Unlocked Vehicles On Their Own
Kids are such curious creatures and hide and seek or other play and exploration will undoubtedly present an opportunity for children to try and gain access to a car door or trunk. 214 child fatalities (25.2%) from the media review resulted from a child climbing into a car by themselves, unsupervised.6 Younger children, even those who may know how to unlock doors, may quickly become disoriented and trapped with quickly rising temperatures.
Children Are Knowingly Left By A Caregiver
It’s important to note that while some of the occurrences of kids getting purposely left in the car by a caregiver are with malicious intent, many are not. The media review notes that 162 deaths (19.1%) during the 22-year period did involve a purposeful decision to leave the child in the car.7 A babysitter who thought they would quickly get shopping done, parents who went inside the house to grab something and became distracted, grandpa stopping into the bank and deciding to get in line really quickly — these may have been older practices that many of us thankfully survived as kids in the car. But the risks of fatal error are too great and “short trips” can lead to a lifetime of consequences.
Is It Illegal To Leave A Child In a Car?
There is not a national mandate that forbids children from being left alone in a vehicle. Those laws fall to each of the 50 states. Currently, there are only 20 US states that include laws making it illegal to leave an unattended child in a car.8 For some, like Kentucky and Missouri, those laws only apply when a fatality occurs. But even in states like Georgia, Arkansas, Indiana and Ohio that do not have specific laws for children in hot cars, there have been negligent homicide convictions against parents that have resulted from an accidental hot car fatality.9 California introduced Kaitlyn’s Law which also makes it illegal to leave a child unattended in the car when “the vehicle’s engine is running, or the vehicle’s keys are in the ignition, or both.”10
Kentucky Leaving Child in Car Law
A statute known as Bryan’s Law was passed in 2000 by the State of Kentucky. The law was introduced after 11-month old Bryan Puckett died in 1999 when left by his babysitter in a hot car. The law dictates that a person is liable for second-degree manslaughter (a Class C felony) when:
[red_box]“Leaving a child under the age of eight (8) years in a motor vehicle under circumstances which manifest an extreme indifference to human life and which create a grave risk of death to the child, thereby causing the death of the child.”[/red_box]
The statute also applies to the elderly.
Proposed Legislation for Kids Left In Cars
Legislation is now making its way through the House of Representatives known as the Hot Cars Act of 2019 (H.R.3593). The bill would instruct the Department of Transportation to mandate a rule requiring:
“all new passenger motor vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or less to be equipped with an alert system to detect the presence of an occupant (e.g., a child or domestic animal) in a rear designated seating position after the vehicle engine is turned off. DOT must also consider requiring systems that can detect the presence of any occupant unable to independently exit the vehicle and the presence of a child who has entered an unoccupied vehicle independently.”11
The House is soon expected to review the legislation.
Additional Recommendations for Lawmakers
The National Safety Council has proposed seven specific recommendations for lawmakers to consider as they press for additional legislation around unattended children in vehicles. include:
- Eliminate “safe” time periods from legislation – This would change certain allowances for leaving a child unattended in a vehicle for up to 15 minutes (Florida).
- All supervisors of kids who knowingly leave a child unattended in a motor vehicle should be held responsible for actions.
- Clearly define the age of kids that should not be left unattended – this would include a push for an increase in the age a child cannot be left.
- Include protection for vulnerable individuals – This would include kids, incapacitated individuals and “vulnerable adults.”
- Protect “any person” who acts to rescue a child in good faith – would expand beyond law enforcement and emergency response teams to protect all people.
- Allow people to take action when a child is in physical danger – would also include when a child “poses a danger to others” like attempting to shift the gears of a car that is running.
- Direct funds received from fines to support education – would include important programs for parents, caregivers and offenders.
Good Samaritan Laws When Rescuing an Unattended Child
If you find yourself in a situation where a child is left unattended in a vehicle, it may be necessary to rescue the child from danger. Currently, there is not a US Good Samaritan law that applies nationwide when this circumstance arises. Those are instead left to each state. 16 states including Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio include Good Samaritan laws that are meant to protect individuals from liability and damages when they make the choice to break into a vehicle and attempt a rescue.12
Recommended Steps When a Child is Left Unattended in a Car
It’s important to note that lawsuits could result from actions taken to save a child from harm when they are left unattended in a vehicle. However, there is a way to proceed which could minimize lawsuit exposure. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends that bystanders not wait more than a few minutes for a driver to return to the car and to first assess if the child is responsive or unresponsive and in distress.
When a Child Is Unresponsive Or In Distress
Call 911 right away and get the child out of the car if they appear to be unresponsive or in distress. Be sure to check for unlocked doors first. Keep in mind that stronger legal protections exist for paramedics and police officers when rescuing children. Emergency services should be able to assist in the steps you need to break into the vehicle should that become necessary. Some might consider using a rescue tool if available when breaking windows. The Resqme tool is a window breaker and seatbelt cutter and fits on your keychain.
Once the child is freed from the vehicle, they may need to be sprayed or toweled off with cool water (avoid ice baths) until emergency responders arrive.
When a Child is Responsive
If a child seems responsive, the NHTSA recommends remaining at the vehicle with the child until help arrives, to send another person to search for the driver and have nearby stores use their paging systems to alert the driver.
All Of This Can Be Avoided: Develop New Safety Checks
If you haven’t already developed strong routines to safeguard against leaving a child unattended in a vehicle, now is the time to implement some changes. Some of the most popular recommendations from the NHTSA to help include:
- Look before you lock – be sure to always take one more look in your back seats
- Use a stuffed animal – Keep the animal in the child car seat when there are no kids in the car, and move it to the front seat to create a reminder that a child is in the vehicle
- Communicate and make sure your child has safely arrived – start a regular text message or phone call routine after every drop off and arrival.
A text message exchange that can make all the difference might be as simple as this:
Mom: “Please confirm when the kids are safely dropped off at daycare”
Dad: “Kids are now safely dropped off at daycare”
Don’t ever skip the routine you set up. Make it a point to do it every time, and establish the same routine with grandparents and babysitters. If you’re leaving kids in their care for an extended time, check in with them to make sure they are communicating the same way with each other and insist that they stick to their routines. If the pattern is broken and you don’t hear from someone driving your kids, don’t wait hours, call or text them to verify their safety and remind them of the safety protocols that are in place.
Keep Kids from Climbing Into Unattended Cars
Cars are not places for children to play. Instill that early on. Children are of course explorers, so familiarize them with vehicles and excite their curiosities, but always do it with them. Lock your vehicle, double-check the doors and trunk are secure, and keep the keys out of reach. Take the extra step of making sure any seats that fold down are secured upright. This will help deter children from crawling into the trunk from the back seat area.
New Technologies to Detect Kids Left in Hot Cars
A handful of organizations are developing new tech that could greatly reduce the number of preventable deaths when a child is left unattended in a vehicle. As mentioned above, the Hot Cars Act of 2019 is seeking to mandate alert systems in cars. The bill further specifies that:
“The alert must (1) include a distinct auditory and visual alert to notify individuals inside and outside of the vehicle of the presence of an occupant which must be combined with an interior haptic warning (i.e., vibrations), and (2) be activated when the vehicle engine is turned off and the presence of an occupant is detected.”13
That kind of technology could bring about big change in creating new patterns of checking the backseat as routinely as putting on a seatbelt.
“We feel very strongly that because education isn’t changing anything, we need technology to prevent children from dying in hot cars.”14
– Amber Rollins, director of KidsandCars.org
Other popular technologies now being considered include:
- Trunk Release Cords – As of 2001, car manufacturers are now required to install glow in the dark trunk releases inside the trunk space. Instruct your children on how to use these systems just in case. You can request installation from manufacturers on most vehicles made before 2001.
- Rear Seat System Reminder from General Motors – a monitoring system for the vehicle’s rear doors.
- Sensorsafe by Evenflo – This device would notify drivers when a car has been turned off, that a child is still seated.
- GPS App Alerts – There’s a setting in the Waze navigation app that users can activate that will remind the driver to check the back seat when they have reached their destination.
It Takes a Village – Call Upon Others to Help With Safety Efforts
The responsibilities taken on in caring for children may sometimes feel astronomical. The mind gets easily distracted and we can lose our focus quickly and easily. Even with the strongest of intentions, the tragedy of losing a child in a hot car death has affected every demographic. This is preventable, but it often takes getting your “team” on board with new strategies and practices.
Reach out to your daycare or other family members and initiate a practice of having them call you if they notice your child is later than usual. Start the habit of a “kids arrived safely” text message or call. Look in the back seat, lock the doors, and keep the keys out of reach. Take the small steps now. It could make all the difference to you and your little ones.
6. [KidsandCars: State Laws]↩