Whoops! Your little one has fallen asleep in their car seat while you are running errands. Do you leave them be and run in to make those “quick” returns? Do you forgo the errands altogether, or do you try to slip them into their stroller and risk waking them up?
While the answer may be obvious for some parents, these thoughts have crossed many parents’ minds. Unfortunately, leaving your child alone in the car can have disastrous consequences—for the child and you. Your child could face life-threatening temperatures, accidental injury or kidnapping, and you may face criminal charges or jail time.
As a parent, we have to make a lot of tough decisions, but leaving your child in the car should not be one of them—not even for a minute.
Read on to learn more about the dangers of leaving your child alone in a car and steps you can take to keep your child safe.
Dangers of leaving children in cars
Each year about 38 children in the U.S. die from heat stroke after being trapped in a car. Some were left by mistake; some were left on purpose and some were using the car as a place to play.
Accidents can sometimes occur because you don’t realize just how hot a parked car can get—no matter the season or if you live in a mild climate. Any vehicle can act as a greenhouse, trapping in heat and causing temperatures to rise quickly inside.
“On a 70 degree day in about a half hour, the temperature inside a car can reach 113 degrees,” said Tracey Fejt, RN, trauma outreach and injury prevention coordinator at Banner Children’s at Desert. “Leaving the windows open slightly does not prevent the temperature from rising to a dangerous level either.”
In addition to rising temperatures in the car, your child’s body can heat up quickly too. “A child’s body overheats three to five times faster than an adult,” Fejt said. “Children have died of heat stroke when the temperature outside has been as low as 60 degrees.”
The danger of hypothermia is also a serious risk. Just like a child’s body can heat to a dangerous temperature in a matter of minutes, the reverse effect can happen in the cold.
Other risks of leaving your child alone in a car include being trapped in a trunk, setting the car in motion or being taken from the car.
Is it illegal to leave your kids in a car?
The worst things that could happen from leaving a child alone in a vehicle are injuries and death. In addition, parents, guardians and caretakers like nannies could face criminal charges, such as child abuse, child endangerment, reckless behavior and more.
Currently nearly 20 states have laws that specifically make it illegal to leave a child unattended in a vehicle.
“For example, in Arizona there’s no law that makes it illegal to leave your child alone in a car, but the person responsible for leaving a child in a position to cause injury or death could face a class 6 felony,” Fejt said. “And, in California, there is a law (known as Kaitlyn’s Law) that makes it illegal to leave a child age 6 or younger alone in a car without the supervision of someone at least 12 years old.”
Steps you can take to keep your child (and other children) safe
While laws do vary state by state, bottom line is that it’s never safe to leave your child alone in a car—even if the car is running. Fejt shared a list of tips and recommendations to avoid harm, injury or worse.
- Look before you lock. Make it a habit to check your entire vehicle before locking up. It may help to place your purse or personal item, such as your laptop or employee badge, in the back seat or something of your child’s, such as a stuffed animal or diaper bag, in the front seat as a reminder.
- Lock your car doors and trunk after everyone is out of the car. Some accidents and heat-related incidents have happened because children get into the car unattended to play and can’t get out.
- Talk to your child about safety. Teach them that the car is not a place for play and how to deal with strangers.
- Plan errands according to your child’s schedule. Try to avoid more than one or two errands in a day and, when possible, use drive-thru and pick-up options for groceries and other items. When you get home, get your kids out first and then worry about unloading anything else from your car.
- Put in place safeguards. Some vehicles have warning systems that tell you to look in the backseat prior to getting out of the car. There are car seats that have built-in devices to alert caregivers of children in the backseat. If you’re taking a child to daycare, have the staff call you if your child doesn’t arrive at the normal scheduled time.
- Call 911 if you see a child alone in a car. Don’t look for the caregiver. If the child is not responsive or is in distress, get them out immediately any way possible and get them to a cooler environment with AC. Remove their clothing and dampen them with cool water or wet rags.
Never leave your child alone in the car. What may seem like a quick trip inside could become delayed and may cause you to leave them in the vehicle longer than you intended. While taking your child out of the car may add a few minutes to your errand, it will protect them from injury and may even save their life.
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