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Leaving a small child unattended in a vehicle

Child in infant car seat

It seems obvious that leaving an infant or toddler unsupervised in car is a bad idea. Yet, Noheatstroke.org reports that there have been 39 heatstroke deaths of children in 2016, up from 24 in 2015. The Department of Meteorology & Climate Science at San Jose State University found that of the approximately 700 child vehicular heatstroke deaths since 1998, nearly 20 percent of the caregivers of these children left the child in the car intentionally. 

Even if a child doesn’t get heat stroke, an unattended child may set the car in motion, get hurt by playing with power windows, strangled by the seatbelt or even taken by a stranger.

With scary outcomes like this, you’d think there would be a nationwide law against leaving your child in a car, but there is not. Only 19 states make it illegal to leave a small child unattended in a vehicle.

Of the states with laws, the age of the child that cannot be left unattended varies, as does the amount of time the child can be left alone. For instance, in Texas a child younger than seven can be left unattended in a vehicle for up to five minutes. But Florida’s law kicks in when a child younger than six is left alone for over 15 minutes.

Some legislators are working to prevent deaths from caregivers accidentally leaving children in the car unattended (an estimated 54 percent of kids dying from heatstroke are forgotten). U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan has sponsored legislation that would require the Secretary of Transportation to issue a rule requiring all new passenger motor vehicles to be equipped with a child safety alert system. This bill has been dubbed the “Hot Cars Act of 2016” and aims to get technology in cars that will warn the driver if a child is left in the back seat. 

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