Every year, an average of 38 children across the country die of heat stroke — hyperthermia — after being left in a hot car, according to KidsAndCars.org, a nonprofit safety organization. This year, there have been eight such deaths nationwide. In Herkimer County, a 15-month-old girl died June 4 in a car in a driveway after her father apparently forgot about her and took a different vehicle to work.
Would a law against leaving kids alone in cars prevent those deaths?
New York state senators think so. Since 2006, they’ve been working on a bill to make it illegal to leave a child under 8 without adult supervision in a vehicle, citing hyperthermia as one risk to kids. The legislation has yet to be passed by the Assembly and signed into law.
But perhaps that bill’s time has come. S306-2013 passed the state Senate in March and was sent to the Assembly, which has an almost identical bill, A410-2013, with eight sponsors and 11 co-sponsors.
What the New York legislators want to do is admirable: spread the word that leaving a young child alone in a hot vehicle for any length of time can be lethal.
No one wants children to die. KidsAndCars.org suggests parents make a habit of always looking in the back of the car before they lock up, in addition to putting something essential, like a cell phone, in the back seat, so that the adult driver needs to get the item before leaving the car.
Why? Many heat-stroke deaths have occurred after a young child fell asleep in the back seat and was forgotten. In some heart-breaking cases, parents have become distracted or upset, or changed routines, and simply didn’t realize the child was back there.
Yes, on occasion parents do the wrong thing on purpose, using the car as a holding pen for a young child instead of hiring a babysitter.
But we don’t think another law is the answer. Parents can already be criminally charged for neglecting, harming or endangering a child.
This proposed legislation puts the power in the hands of the police and takes it away from parents and children. Under the law, it would be illegal to allow a 7-year-old to finish reading a book in his own driveway, or for a parent to drop a package off at the post office while the kids wait in the car.
By 5 or 6, a typically developing child can unbuckle his seat belt and get out of the car on his own. Children at that age can yell for help, run, kick or fight if they are menaced.
Parents should encourage children to be able to sit in the car alone for a couple of minutes. (And it should be up to the parent – not a police officer – to decide if a child is not ready for even a few minutes on her own.)
Teaching a child to be able to think for herself is part of a parent’s job. Developing good instincts enables kids to run from suspicious strangers or report playground bullies. Parents can’t be on the scene all the time; kids need practice taking care of themselves.
That skill is one that could save a child’s life.