Whether you’re running a quick errand or need to grab something from your house while your car idles in the driveway, it can be tempting to leave your child in the car for a minute or two while you go about your business. At first thought, this may seem entirely reasonable if the car is in a safe location, the temperature within the vehicle is acceptable for occupants, and there are no hazards to the child’s wellbeing. However, many states have passed laws forbidding parents, caretakers, or other responsible adults from leaving unattended children in a vehicle.
In this article, we discuss the potential dangers of leaving a child in the car, the legality of doing so in each U.S. state, and some tips for keeping kids safe in a motor vehicle. Read on to learn more about how to protect your child in the car.
Is It Safe to Leave an Unattended Child in the Car?
Although it may be legal to leave an unattended child in the car in some states, doing so can be dangerous for their health. Some of the potential risks associated with leaving a kid in the car unattended include:
- Heatstroke: Heatstroke is a serious and potentially fatal heat-related illness. This condition occurs when the body is unable to regulate its temperature. As the child’s temperature rises, they are at risk of heart, brain, muscle, and kidney damage. The longer medical treatment is delayed, the more significant the potential consequences. Children are particularly vulnerable to heat-related illnesses, as their bodies are unable to regulate temperatures as effectively as a full-grown adult.
- Carbon monoxide poisoning: You should never start your car or allow it to idle in an enclosed space, such as a garage. Doing so creates the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas created when fuel is burned. Inhaling the fumes prevents the human body from using oxygen properly, which can lead to heart, brain, and organ damage or failure. Symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include a fast heartbeat, fainting, dizziness, vomiting or headaches, difficulty breathing, blurred vision, or weakness.
- Trapped in the trunk: Intentionally trapping a child in the trunk of a motor vehicle is always a bad idea. However, sometimes a child may sneak into the trunk of a car without their guardian noticing. If the child is left in the vehicle for more than a few minutes, they are at risk of heatstroke or asphyxiation. Car trunks generally have poor airflow, as they are not meant for living passengers. This increases the risk of heat-related emergencies.
- Physical injury: When a child is bored, restless, or curious, they may be tempted to play around in the car. This can lead to serious harm if they fall and hit their head on a hard surface, tumble out of an unlocked vehicle, or manipulate the car’s windows. They may also become wrapped up in a seatbelt or accidentally set the car in motion.
- Child abduction: The risk of a child abduction increases when your kid is left alone in a car, even if the vehicle is locked. Criminals actively search for vulnerable children that are not under the protection of an adult. If you must leave an older child in the vehicle to run a quick errand, be sure they have a cellphone and instructions to call 911 if they notice someone trying to get into the car.
- Carjacking with the child inside: In rare cases, a car may be stolen while there is still a child or infant in the back seat. This situation puts the child’s life in serious danger. Always be on the lookout for suspicious behavior if you need to stop or park your car.
Does Your State Have a Law Against Leaving a Child Unattended in the Car?
At the time of this article’s writing, 21 U.S. states have passed laws that specifically address children left in a vehicle without supervision. In the table below, we note whether a state forbids leaving a child in a vehicle, whether there is a “grace period” length of time that a child may be left unattended, the applicable law or statute, and the ages of children that fall under the legislation. The AZ Defenders note that the penalties for leaving a child unattended may range from a misdemeanor to a felony, depending upon the state in which the crime occurred.
Some noteworthy takeaways:
- Some states (California, Illinois, Maryland) allow a young kid to be left in the vehicle if supervised by an older child
- Most states with a law forbidding people from leaving a child in the car set an upper age cutoff of 5, 6, or 7 years old
- The state of Kentucky allows parents or caretakers to leave a child unattended in the car, but if the child suffers fatal harm the responsible party is charged with felony manslaughter
- The state of Washington specifically forbids parents or other responsible adults from leaving a child unattended at a bar, tavern, or other alcohol-serving venue, but not other locations (unless the car is left on)
|State||Hot Car Law?||Time Limit (Minutes)||Child Age (Years)||State Law or Statute||Additional Details|
|Alabama||Yes||None||0-8||Ala. Code 1975, §13A-11-290(c)(4)||Allowable if vehicle cooler than 99 degrees Fahrenheit|
|California||Yes||None||0-6||California Vehicle Code Section 15620||Must be supervised by person 12+|
|Connecticut||Yes||None||0-11||C.G.S. § 53-21a||Not allowed if child is endangered|
|Florida||Yes||0 if car is off or child is at risk, 15 if car is on||0-5||Florida Statute 316.6135||Not allowed if child is endangered or car is on|
|Hawaii||Yes||5||0-8||HI Rev Stat § 291C-121.5||Not allowed for five minutes or longer|
|Illinois||Yes||10||0-5||720 ILCS 5/12C-5||Not allowed for ten minutes or longer unless supervised by a person aged 14+|
|Kentucky||Yes||None||0-7||“Bryan’s Law”||Allowed but felony manslaughter if the child suffers fatal harm|
|Louisiana||Yes||10||0-5||LA Rev Stat § 32:295.3||Not allowed for ten minutes or longer|
|Maryland||Yes||0||0-7||Maryland Family Law §5-801||Not allowed in a locked vehicle unless supervised by a person aged 13+|
|Michigan||Yes||0||All children||Section 750.135a||Not allowed if child is endangered|
|Missouri||Yes||None||All children||RSMo Section 577.300||Allowed but caretaker liable for injuries or damages|
|Nebraska||Yes||0||0-6||Nebraska Revised Statute 28-710||Not allowed for any reason|
|Nevada||Yes||0||0-7||NRS 202.485||Not allowed if child is endangered or car is on|
|Oklahoma||Yes||0||0-6||47 OK Stat § 47-11-1119||Not allowed if child is endangered or car is on|
|Pennsylvania||Yes||0||0-5||Title 75 Pa. C.S.A. Vehicles § 3701.1.||Not allowed if child is endangered|
|Rhode Island||Yes||0||0-11||RI Gen L § 31-22-22.1||Not allowed if child is endangered|
|Tennessee||Yes||0||All children||TCA Code 55-10-803 (a)||Not allowed if car is on|
|Texas||Yes||5||0-6||Tex. Pen. Code § 22.10||Not allowed for five minutes or longer|
|Utah||Yes||0||0-8||76-10-2202||Allowed unless child suffers dehydration, hypothermia, or heatstroke|
|Washington||Yes||0||0-15||RCW 9.91.060 & RCW 46.61.685||Not allowed if driver is at a bar / tavern or the car is left on|
|Wisconsin||Yes||0||All children||Wisconsin Statutes 948.53||Applies only to childcare providers|
Annual Heatstroke Deaths from Being Left in the Car
Every year, children lose their lives due to being left in a hot car. From 1998 to 2022, 937 children died as a result of heatstroke from being left in a motor vehicle. On average, 37 lives were lost annually over this timeframe. Heatstroke deaths peaked in 2019 and 2020, at 53 fatalities per year, before decreasing down to 30 lives lost in 2022. Vehicle-related heatstroke deaths are especially tragic, since they are always preventable. If a relative, caretaker, or childcare professional leaves your child unattended and it leads to serious harm or death, Tiano O’Dell PLLC notes that you may have the foundation of a successful personal injury lawsuit.
How to Keep Your Child Safe in the Car
To help you keep your child healthy and safe in the car, we’ve compiled the following list of tips to follow. You should always:
- Stay aware of current and predicted weather conditions. Heatstroke is most likely to happen when a child is exposed to higher heat than they are used to, so pay attention to local weather advisories, high humidity, and unusually high temperatures.
- Check the backseat for children before exiting the car.
- If your child is with a caretaker, childcare worker, or another adult, ask them to check in with you after they arrive at a destination with your child.
- Know the signs of heatstroke and seek immediate medical assistance if your child displays any symptoms.
- Bring water for yourself and your passengers, even if you do not expect to be in the car for a long time. Traffic, car problems, or other unexpected circumstances can make your drive longer than anticipated.