Imagine you’re dropping your child off at preschool — but your baby is still snoozing in his car seat. It will take you less than a minute to run your kid into her school, but if you have to take out your baby’s car seat (and run the risk of waking him up), it’ll surely slow you down. Plus, your baby is bound to be miserable for the rest of the day if you interrupt his zzz’s. Sigh. You want to dash in and out, but is it illegal to leave your child alone in the car?
We’ve probably all been tempted at one point or another to leave a sleeping kid in the car to run into a store/pharmacy/school for just a minute. But then there’s always that fear that it’ll be your auto that gets carjacked with your sleeping babe still inside. Or that there will be a cop waiting for you upon your return, or an angry mob with pitchforks looking to crucify you for being the absolute worst mother on earth for leaving your kid in the car, as opposed to, say, dragging him out in the pouring rain to pick up one quick thing on a Target run.
So if you’ve hesitated to leave your child in the car, there’s probably a good reason why. Apart from all the what-if scenarios that might run through your mind, we’ve all heard those horror stories of kids who’ve died after being left in hot cars. On average, 40 children die from vehicular heatstroke after being locked inside vehicles each year, according to noheatstroke.org. You’d think that would be enough to have a federal law on the books that clearly spells out if leaving your child unattended in a car is okay or not, but nope. It’s up to each individual state to determine how they want to handle this situation.
Currently, only 19 of the 50 U.S. states have passed laws addressing kids in unattended cars. And of those, only one state — Nebraska —has a zero tolerance policy for leaving a child in a car unattended at all. That said, states such as Arkansas and Georgia (which don’t have a hot car law) have charged and convicted parents for negligent homicide as a result of an accidental hot car death, according to finder.com. Beyond that, the laws vary greatly as to when it’s okay to leave a kid unsupervised.
For example, it’s not allowed to leave your child in a car unless the ignition is on in states like Florida and Tennessee. And on the flip side, Nevada and Oklahoma don’t allow it if the car is on or there’s a significant risk to the child. Some states have time limits — you can’t leave a child locked in an unattended vehicle for longer than five minutes in states like Texas or Hawaii, but the ages of the children being left alone also varies.
Some states have blanket laws that state it’s not permissible to leave children alone if it could possibly endanger them. This goes for Connecticut, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. Utah states it’s allowed to leave a child unless she subsequently suffers heat stroke, hypothermia, or dehydration as a result. And some states require someone to supervise little ones in the car. (In California, the person has to be 12 years old; in Maryland, it’s 13, and for Illinois, it’s 14.)
Washington law states you can’t leave a child under the age of 12 unattended in a parked automobile in a car if it’s on — or if the driver is at a bar or tavern. Which, um, you really shouldn’t be doing, anyway. And in Texas, which ABC 13 News reported has the highest rate of child hot car deaths, it’s a Class C misdemeanor if you leave your child for longer than five minutes if he’s younger than seven, or not attended by someone 14 years-old or older.
Since summer begins in just a few days, it’s important to know where your state stands when it comes to leaving your child unattended in a car. But obviously, just because your state doesn’t already have a law on the books regarding kids being in cars alone doesn’t mean that you should leave your kid unsupervised. If you're not sure about your state's specific laws, check out the detailed guide on KidsandCars.org. Always use your best discretion when it comes to the safety of your child, especially in hotter and colder months, when they are more likely to be in greater danger. And when in doubt, take them out — of the car, that is.